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The Vatican has come under pressure from the United States to shun Iraq, the birthplace of the Prophet Abraham, during the travels of Pope John Paul II. The State Department is reportedly concerned that the pope’s scheduled December visit will be manipulated by Saddam Hussein “for political purposes.” No doubt. There are few heads of state anywhere whose political motivations are more suspect than Saddam’s; meanwhile, the pope’s motivations are unquestionably religious and humanitarian. It should be clear whose message will prevail.

The real trouble is that the pope is a vocal opponent of U.S. sanctions against Iraq, just as he has opposed sanctions against Cuba, another country he visited against U.S. wishes. Indeed, the pope has emerged as a leading critic of sanctions generally, just as the United States has emerged as a leading practitioner of sanctions around the world.

In the pope’s view, articulated in many sermons and under-girded by three magisterial encyclicals on economics, forbidding trade in nonmilitary goods and services harms the poor, engenders rather than quells conflict, and forestalls political changes consistent with human rights.

Indeed, last month’s United Nations’ report on the effect of sanctions against Iraq seems to support this view: Half a million children under the age of five have died since 1991. Every month, another four thousand children die due to lack of medicine, food, and clean water. Malnutrition and disease is widespread. Oil-for-food exchanges have addressed only a tiny part of the problem. The pope cannot be expected to overlook a crisis of this magnitude.

The problem of sanctions is not limited to Iraq. The United States maintains some form of economic sanctions against seventy-eight countries–nearly half the countries in the world. Some are holdovers from the Cold War (Cuba, North Korea, and China); others are the usual lineup of rogue states (Libya and Iran). Lobbying groups have pushed Congress to impose sanctions for the most menial of infractions. Even Costa Rica, Italy, and the tiny island of Vanuatu have found themselves on the receiving end of U.S. trade sanctions.

Along with the rise of sanctions mania, sweeping academic studies have appeared–like Gary Hufbauer’s Economic Sanctions Reconsidered (1999)–that have shown sanctions to be economically harmful to the most vulnerable part of the population in the targeted country. Neither do they achieve their stated military or political objectives. After all, Fidel Castro, Muammar Qaddafi, and Hussein still rule their much-sanctioned domains. In each case, sanctions have served to underscore the image of the leader as an opponent of foreign empire.

In contrast, Catholic social teaching has long embraced peaceful international economic relations as an expression of human solidarity. As I saw first-hand on my last visit to Cuba, forbidding trade means barring people from having access to the means of material improvement, which is a sin against charity. It also means using a policy of coercion, rewarding some and injuring others, where peaceful exchange would be more fruitful.

We have known since Athens’ embargo against Megara in 431 bc set off the Peloponnesian War that sanctions are no way to conduct international policy. If we want a world where human rights are respected, the path of peace and trade is to be preferred to a path of ongoing belligerence. Rather than being harassed by the Clinton administration, Pope John Paul II should be praised for setting an example of political independence in the face of a misguided U.S. policy against so many countries.

Rev. Robert A. Sirico received his Master of Divinity degree from the Catholic University of America following undergraduate study at the University of Southern California and the University of London.  During his studies and early ministry, he experienced a growing concern over the lack of training religious studies students receive in fundamental economic principles, leaving them poorly equipped to understand and address today's social problems.  As a result of these concerns, Fr. Sirico co-founded the Acton Institute with Kris Alan Mauren in 1990.