Friday, July 21, 2006


Albright's Blunder

Albright's Blunder
by Douglas E. Hill, © 2002, 2004

This was originally published in the December 2002 Irvine Review. Since then, Madeleine Albright, to her credit, has acknowledged this error in her autobiography (Madam Secretary, 2003, Miramax Books, pp.274-75).
Critics of U.N. sanctions against Iraq often claim that the sanctions have killed half a million Iraqi children, and offer as evidence Madeleine Albright's admission of this on “60 Minutes.” Yet Albright’s response proved nothing other than her incompetence as a diplomat by answering, rather than challenging, a loaded question. Diverse speakers and writers at UCI, including Najeeb Kahn in the New University (1999), Dr. Mark LeVine (Cross Cultural Center, October 24, 2002), and a speaker introducing a video on Iraq sanctions (in the Crystal Cove auditorium) have all cited her remarks. Given the frequency that opponents of sanctions cite her remarks, she has gotten surprisingly little criticism from sanctions supporters and others who suspect that Iraqi government policies have something to do with child mortality there. Here's the quote, from when Lesley Stahl interviewed then U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Madeleine Albright on "60 Minutes" on 12 May 1996:

Lesley Stahl: "We have heard that a half million children have died (as a result of sanctions against Iraq). I mean, that is more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?"

Madeleine Albright: "I think this is a very hard choice, but the price, we think the price is worth it."

Stahl said, "we have heard." She did not say, "we have data," or even better, offer an outline of the data that allegedly shows this. It should not be surprising that in a totalitarian society like Iraq, learning the rate of mortality of its children, and the causes of that rate, is quite difficult. (Determining such causes is a difficult job for epidemiologists even in a free society.) In fact, this is a topic of no small controversy. David Cortright wrote in The Nation in 2001:

... [T]he 1999 report "Morbidity and Mortality Among Iraqi Children," by Columbia University's Richard Garfield, ... estimated the most likely number of excess deaths among children under five years of age from 1990 through March 1998 to be 227,000. Garfield's analysis showed child mortality rates double those of the previous decade.

(These numbers indicate a longer period with less than half of the numbers that Stahl cited.) Thus no one argues that there is problem of excess child mortality in Iraq, but the numbers and cause are a matter of controversy. But note what Stahl did: she did not ask Albright how many children had died, or what the cause was. She used an old interrogation trick: she asked a loaded question. This is a question, which like “do you use a club when you beat your wife?” incriminates you whether you answer yes or no. She asked if the price was worth it.

And Albright walked right into this trap. She did not dispute the numbers, or the cause. She just said, essentially, "yes" to a loaded question. If a lawyer is representing you, he had better not answer a loaded question in such an incriminating matter (and he had better not let you answer one either). But as an Ambassador, Albright was representing all Americans. A diplomat worth her salt would have known this. But apparently Albright did not.

It is a scandal that her response did not prevent Albright from becoming Secretary of State, and thus in charge of American diplomacy. It showed incompetent diplomacy for her to answer in the manner she did, even if the numbers and cause implied by the data in the loaded question were true. But while the numbers are in question, the facts do not support the sanctions as a primary cause. When Albright was Secretary, her own State Department refuted that U.N. imposed sanctions could be a cause of these casualties, when it wrote in a document released 13 September 1999 (and updated 24 March 2000):

Sanctions are not intended to harm the people of Iraq. That is why the sanctions regime has always specifically exempted food and medicine. The Iraqi regime has always been free to import as much of these goods as possible. It refuses to do so, even though it claims it wants to relieve the suffering of the people of Iraq.

Thus a stupid reply from Albright cannot be used to claim that the sanctions are the cause when a careful study from her department disputes this. A later report from the State department, of 26 January 2001, also supports the claim that it is Iraqi government behavior that is so hurting its citizens:

During this period [June to December, 2000], U.S.$7.8 billion were available to Iraq for purchases during this period, yet Iraq submitted purchase applications worth only U.S.$4.26 billion - barely 54 percent of the amount available for purchases to help the humanitarian needs of the Iraqi people. In key sectors of the Iraqi economy, Saddam's regime's disregard for the welfare of the Iraqi people is made plain.

As to what could be causing the increase in mortality, Cortright in The Nation cites a UNICEF study by Mohamed Ali and Iqbal Shah that seem to show that it is not in fact the sanctions that are primarily responsible for the increase in child mortality:

In south-central Iraq [under Iraqi government control], child mortality rates rose from 56 per 1,000 births for the period 1984-89 to 131 per 1,000 for the period 1994-99. In the autonomous Kurdish region in the north [subject to the same sanctions] … child mortality rates actually fell during the same period, from 80 per 1,000 births to 72 per 1,000.

Thus despite the sanctions, the mortality rate is higher only in the areas under Iraqi government control, suggesting that it is that government, rather than the sanctions, which bears primary responsibility. If the numbers are as grave has a quarter- to a half-a-million dead children, then there is a strong humanitarian argument to liberate Iraq from the tyranny holding Iraqi children hostage like this. And it is unfortunate that an American diplomat who was to become U.S. Secretary of State would aid those who wish to blame the U.S. by conceding that U.N. sanctions are responsible when the evidence does not support this.

When this was originally published (2002), Douglas E. Hill was a graduate student at UCI in Logic & Philosophy of Science, vice-president of Students for Science & Skepticism, and hosted "Campus Talk UCI" Mondays 4-5 pm on KUCI 88.9 fm.

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I'd like to credit the Irvine Review with the great title of "Albright's Blunder". My original title was something like "Diplomatic Incompetence and Iraq Sanctions." Their title was a big improvement; the rest of the words are mine (except where I quote, of course).

Good editing is an important part of good writing, and that bit of editing improved this piece.
Mike Rosen identified the trap that Albright fell into as a "loaded question" before I wrote "Albright's Blunder." (Had I been aware of this, I would of course had cited him.) But the archived version of his article contains two significant errors:

1) Its byline misidentifies the author as the great Mike Royko, who passed away in 1997, five years before this article was written. You need to scroll to the bottom of the article to see that the author is Denver talk show host Rosen.

2) The article misidentifies the office that Albright held when she gave the interview in question. She was then the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. She was not yet the Secretary of State, as stated in the article. This is a common error, made by many sources (e.g. who cite Albright's quote. Albright's promotion seems to have had the effect of amplifying her original mistake: when she became Secretary of State, her alleged "admission" now seemed to come from a high-level Cabinet Secretary, and not just an ambassador.
The archived version of Rosen's article correctly identified its author as Mike Rosen. (Unfortunately, as I write this, the link is not working.)
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