Madeleine Albright’s Iraq Legacy
How the former Secretary of State and UN Ambassador, who died this week, failed the test of history
In May 1996, on CBS’ 60 Minutes, Leslie Stahl asked then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright about the ongoing economic sanctions that the United Nations, led by the US, had imposed on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in response to his illegal invasion of Kuwait in 1990. The sanctions banned nearly all trade with Iraq until it rid itself permanently and unconditionally of all nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons capabilities and allowed inspectors full access to verify and monitor compliance. At the time of the interview, it was widely believed that the child mortality rate in Iraq had soared due to the sanctions, leading to the following exchange between Stahl and Albright:
Stahl: We have heard that a half million children have died. I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?
Albright: I think this is a very hard choice, but the price — we think the price is worth it….It is a moral question, but the moral question is even a larger one. Don’t we owe to the American people, and to the American military and to other countries in the region that this man not be a threat?
Stahl: Even with the starvation and the lack…
Albright: I think, Leslie — it is hard for me to say this because I am a humane person, but my first responsibility is to make sure that the United States forces do not have to go and refight the Gulf War.
Stahl later won an Emmy for this interview. But it was based on a shaky premise, as Michael Spagat, a British historian, documented later. Members of a study team from the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization, which had visited Iraq in 1995 to investigate health and nutrition conditions, had extrapolated from a small sample of mothers interviewed in Baghdad to claim that 567,000 Iraqi children had died due to the sanctions, but experts quickly found problems with their research. Two years after making the original estimate, one of those researchers retracted most of her findings. It was impossible to know if the mothers interviewed had exaggerated their own reports out of fear of the repressive Iraqi government, or…