On the unreported consequences of sanctions and war on the people of Iraq
documents and

u n c o v e r I r a q . c o m

a l b r i g h t:   " w o r t h   i t "
On May 12, 1996, the CBS news program "60 Minutes" reported on the consequences of comprehensive economic sanctions for the people of Iraq. This report ("Punishing Saddam") included the following interview:

CBS Reporter Lesley Stahl (speaking of post-war sanctions against Iraq):
"We have heard that a half million children have died. I mean, that's more children than died in Hiroshima. And - and you know, is the price worth it?"

Madeleine Albright (at that time, US Ambassador to the UN):
"I think this is a very hard choice, but the price - we think the price is worth it."

Madeleine Albright's comment caused negative reactions throughout the Middle East, but it went unremarked in the U.S. Within six months, Albright was unanimously approved by the Senate as U.S. Secretary of State.

Lesly Stahl later won both both an Emmy and a duPont-Columbia journalism award for the report. The story has otherwise dropped from public view.

The "worth it" interview clip

Seeing is believing. This video clip (choose format, below) may be downloaded to your computer under standard terms for Fair Use.
  • Albright01.mpg (MPEG-1 video format; 3.7MB)
  • Albright01.wmv (Windows media video format; 1.8MB)
  • Historical context

    In these comments, Albright turns the central limitation of modern warfare -- the protection of non-combatants -- on its head. This tenet has been recognized for well over a millenium, since the Council of Le Puy in 975 and since Adomnan's Law of Innocents of 697. It is the core of all convention and law governing behavior during war.

    Many fear this constraint has been lost as warfare became mechanized and de-personalized during the last century. This may explain why Albright's comment provoked no outcry in the western media, no political controversy, and no immediate disavowals by governmental officials. The public stance was silence.

    Albright's apology

    In Albright's autobiography (Madame Secretary by Madeleine Albright with Bill Woodward, Miramax Books (Hyperior), New York, NY, 2003), she apologized for the remark (p. 174-175):

    I regret to say that I aggravated our public relations problems during a 1996 interview on the CBS program 60 Minutes. The segment included a visual tour of Iraqi health care facilities, with pictures of starving children and denunciations of UN policy by Iraqi officials. Little effort was made to explain Saddam's culpability, his misuse of Iraqi resources, or the fact that we were not embargoing food medicine or food. I was exasperated that our TV was showing what amounted to Iraqi propaganda. Near the program's end, Lesley Stahl asked me, "We have heard that half a million childrean have died [as a result of sanctions]. I mean, that is more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?"

    I must have been crazy; I should have answered the question by reframing it and pointing out the inherrent flaws in the premise behind it. Saddam Hussein could have prevented any child from suffering by simply meeting his obligations. Instead, I said the following: 'I think that this is a very hard choice, but the price, we think, the price is worth it.' As soon as I had spoken, I wished for the power to freeze time and take back those words. My reply had been a terrible mistake, hasty, clumsy and wrong. Nothing matters more than the lives of innocent people. I had fallen into a trap and said something that I simply did not mean. That was no one's fault but my own. There are many times in everyone's life when the mouth works faster than the brain; there was no more regrettable example in my own career than this ill-considered response to Lesley Stahl.

    Seven years passed between Albright's CBS interview (1996) and her autobiography (2003). During this time:

  • The CESR study that estimated 500,000 excess deaths among Iraqi children (cited in the CBS report) was found to be methodologically flawed.
  • However, a 1999 UNICEF survey within Iraq reinforced the earlier studies. Based on new data, it also estimated 500,000 excess deaths among Iraqi children under 5-years old.
  • UN Assistant Secretary General Denis Halliday, the Humanitarian Coordinator for the Oil for Food program in Iraq, resigned in 1998 to protest sanctions that he later termed "genocidal".
  • Halliday was succeeded by Hans von Sponeck. In 2000, von Sponeck also resigned in protest. In this act, he was joined by Jutta Burghardt, the UN's head of the World Food Program for Iraq who also resigned to protest sanctions.
  • One of the early foreign policy successes of President George W. Bush's administration was implementation of smart sanctions, finally established in 2002. These were claimed by the US to address humanitarian concerns for Iraqi civilians; however, the Iraqi government claimed the change was merely cosmetic.

    None of these events figure in Albright's autobiography, and in fact her response contradicts itself. Albright's explanation ("Saddam Hussein could have prevented any child from suffering by simply meeting his obligations") is contradicted later on the same page when she notes:

    ... (My) speech ... reaffirmed (U.S. policy). The senior President Bush had vowed that sanctions would never be lifted as long as Saddam remained in power.

    In other words, the U.S. would not agree to ending sanctions should treaty obligations be met (verified disarmament). Rather, U.S. policy moved the goal posts, and tied the end of sanctions to a change of the Iraqi government.

  • Updated April 2007
    Photos and multimedia material on this page Copyright CBS News, 1996.
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