Exchange with Michael Spagat re “The Iraq Sanctions Myth”

UK based economist, Michael Spagat, recently wrote an article entitled "The Iraq Sanctions Myth" in which he argued that

"sanctions allegedly killed hundreds of thousands of children in Iraq and provided a rationale for invasion, a line still heard today. But those deaths almost certainly never happened."

This graph illustrates the evidence Spagat relied on.

An exchange I had with him on the Pacific Standard website follows:


The MICS study [which Spagat cited as evidence of the "myth"] says

"At the national level, relatively little, if any improvement has taken place during the last 15 years, with under-five mortality at 49 per 1,000 during the 10-14 year period preceding the survey, and 41 per 1,000 live births during the most recent 5-year period, roughly referring to the years 2001-2006"

If you compare that trend with Saudi Arabia's over the same period then over 100,000 children under 5 died between about 1990-2002 from the combined impact of the first war and the sanctions.

According to UNICEF, Iraq had a lower child mortality rate than Saudi Arabia's in 1988. According to UNICEF. Saudi Arabia's child mortality rate was 44 in 1991, 26 by 1998 and 20 by 2009.

Saying that Iraq would have been able to follow the (hardly Utopian) path of Saudi Arabia in reducing child mortality had it not been for the first war and the sanctions is about as solid a counter factual as anyone can propose. You could similarly compare Iraq to Egypt and Libya – two other countries that had higher child mortality rates than Iraq as of 1988 but by 2002 had vastly lower rates.

Whether you think the death toll from the 1990 war plus the sanctions killed 100,000 children or a number several times greater, it was clearly no "myth" that the impact was catastrophic. The pretext for this savagery – the "grave threat" posed by Iraq – was nonsense in 1990 and absolutely lunatic by 2002.


Thank you for your comments Mr. Emersberger.

It doesn't look like we disagree about very much, but I’ll respond in some detail anyway.

You appear to accept my main contention – that there was no spike in child mortality rates in Iraq in the 1990’s.

We also agree that Iraq was not a “grave threat” and should not have been invaded.

I hope I also convinced you that the spike falsehood was costly since it has helped various people, including Tony Blair, justify the invasion of Iraq.

I also agree with you that the decline in child mortality rates in Iraq has been slow over the last few decades. It is pretty likely that economic sanctions, the First Gulf War and the 2003 war are all among the reasons the decline hasn't been faster. Other factors likely include the Iran-Iraq War, uprisings in the north and south of Iraq in the aftermath of the First Gulf War and many years of misrule by Saddam Hussein.

The comparison you suggest with Saudi Arabia is interesting, but I’d go back further than you do, using numbers posted on UNICEF’s child mortality.org site. UNICEF puts Iraq’s under-five mortality rate at 69 in 1980 compared to Saudi Arabia’s 89. By 1990 the positions of the two countries were already reversed, with Iraq listed at 46 and Saudi Arabia at 43. So Iraq’s decline in child mortality rates was already much slower than Saudi Arabia’s before the First Gulf War, economic sanctions and everything else that affected Iraq in the 1990’s.

With so much going on it’s pretty hazardous to try to attach a number of deaths to one (or two) particular cause(s) and I prefer not to do it. Of course, it’s OK to speculate but speculators should recognize that they are operating on pretty shaky ground.

I do think that the economic sanctions caused a lot of pain in Iraq and probably helped Saddam Hussein to consolidate his power. I don’t think they were a good idea and wouldn't recommend such policies in similar situations.

I just think it’s a myth that economic sanctions caused a spike in child mortality that led to hundreds of thousands of deaths and that replacing sanctions with war could (or did) lead to an improvement for Iraq's children.


I don't accept your contention that there was no significant jump in Iraqi child mortality rates during the 1990s. You may be right, but I doubt it for reasons I’ll explain below. At any rate, the 2003 war was not required to end the sanctions which, like the war itself, was justified on the lunatic assertion that Saddam Hussein posed a grave threat beyond his borders.

The survey you dispute, as shown in your graph, attributes the bulk of the jump in child mortality to the 1990-91 war. Only two of the studies you cite go back far enough to contradict that finding. The IFHS survey data only goes back to 1993. If you extrapolate IFHS back to 1991 the mortality rate is 70 – quite a bit higher than your other sources, especially ILCS. That certainly doesn't rule out the possibility of a significant jump in 1990-91. You also didn't mention the work done by Richard Garfield on the impact of the 1990-91 war and the sanctions and the corroborating evidence of a jump in child mortality that he cited.

You mention UNICEF numbers that show Iraq’s child mortality rate dropping from 69 to 46 (33%) between 1980 and 1990. You observe that Saudi Arabia achieved a better drop during that decade. That isn’t surprising considering that Iraq was at war with Iran from 1980-1988. What you ignore is that if Iraq’s (not exceptional as you note) rate of improvement from the 1980s had continued then Iraq would have the about same child mortality rate as Saudi Arabia today – roughly 20. Iraq would have had about 20,000 fewer child deaths in 2010 alone, and about 100,000 fewer child deaths between 1990-2002 (if you believe there was no jump in child mortality from the 90-91 war and sanctions but simply a plateauing of the rate of progress).

To see how unusual a prolonged levelling of progress of child moratilty progess is, check out this table from UNCIEF's 2012 State of the World's Children report

This table, from same report, provides the number of child deaths for 2010.

People may rationally debate the scale of the catastrophe inflicted by the 1990-91 war and the sanctions. However, it is clear that the first US led war and the sanctions caused a catastrophe. That is no “myth”.

Leave a comment