In May 2003, George Lopez found himself on the phone with an angry Judith Miller of The New York Times. A month earlier, while Lopez was giving an interview on The Newshour with Jim Lehrer, Miller had been beamed into the show via satellite and proclaimed that the Marines with whom she was embedded in Iraq had found chemical weapons. (This claim later proved to be false.)
Lopez, a Notre Dame professor of political science, had been invited on TV to discuss the apparent absence of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq. Drawing on a decade of research he and colleague David Cortright ’68 conducted on both the sanctions and inspections in Iraq, Lopez argued that even before the war it was clear there weren’t any weapons.
When Miller, the now-infamous journalist whose reporting on WMD was subsequently discredited, called Lopez, she demanded that he admit he had, essentially, gotten lucky with his prediction. “Admit it was a guess,” Lopez recalls her saying. “There’s no way you could have known. There’s no way you could have known!"
At one level, it’s easy to understand why Miller was so incredulous. After all, the White House, foreign intelligence agencies and Miller’s own newspaper all got the WMD issue wrong. How did two academics in South Bend get it right?
Membership in the club of foreign policy elites, those wise men and women whose op-eds are published in the Washington Post and then circulated in the State Department and the U.N. secretary-general’s office, generally consists of experts living in the I-95 corridor that connects Washington, D.C., to Cambridge, Massachusetts. But over the last 15 years, Lopez and Cortright have been at the center of the defining foreign policy debates of our time: from sanctions to weapons proliferation, inspections to counterterrorism.
“Their reputation ranges far and wide in the international community,” a U.N. official who’s worked closely with the pair told me via email. They are known, she wrote, as “knowledgeable, focused, articulate and low-key. . . . The U.N. Secretariat routinely provides their books to Security Council members, including new members each year, as they join the council.”
Lopez is 5-feet-6 and excitable, Cortright, taller and reserved. They know each other’s schedules to the minute and finish each other’s sentence. Lopez wears a shirt, tie and no jacket; Cortright a jacket, shirt and no tie. Though they both pursue independent research in their respective areas of expertise, their collaboration has been so thorough and so durable, it’s easy to see why Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, once introduced George Lopez at a panel as “George Cortright.”
From their perch at Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies in South Bend, the pair has shuttled back and forth to U.N. offices in New York and meetings from Bonn to Baghdad. They’ve testified before Congress, advised diplomats and co-authored 23 articles and chapters and six books. “They were the go-to people on economic sanctions,” says Gerry Powers, policy studies director at the Kroc institute since 2004. In his previous job as director of the Office of International Justice and Peace for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Powers routinely consulted with Lopez and Cortright. “They really wrote the book,” he says.
Lopez says that sometimes after a meeting with diplomats or government officials, “we’d come back on the plane and shake our heads and say, ‘How crazy is it that two local yokels from Indiana are at the center of crafting international sanctions strategy?’"
The two “local yokels" come from complimentary backgrounds. Lopez, 56, has been a student or academic his whole life. He received a doctorate in international relations from Syracuse University in 1975, with a focus on the ethics of war, just-war theory and human rights. At 25, he was hired by Earlham College, a small, Quaker school in Richmond, Indiana, where he ran the school’s Peace and Global Studies program. He was hired as one of Kroc’s first faculty members when the institute was officially christened in 1986.
Cortright, 60, is a self-described “Catholic school boy.” He wasn’t particularly interested in politics, he says, “until the Army came knocking on my door and I had to think about it.” He used his musical ability to land himself in the Army’s band and was stationed stateside. At that point, a growing phalanx of soldiers were turning against the war in Vietnam. Cortright quickly became one of them. He organized GIs against the war and spent his off-duty time handing out anti-war material and organizing educational events. Although Cortright says he made sure to engage in all of his anti-war activities legally—off-duty, out of uniform and off-base—he eventually ran afoul of the military brass. In a case that eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court under the name Cortright v. Resor, Cortright and his fellow activists argued that the Army was suppressing the soldiers’ First Amendment rights by punishing them for their outspoken views about the war. They lost, but by then Cortright was out of the Army.
After leaving the Army, Cortright received a doctorate in political science from Union Graduate School in 1975; his dissertation became the book Soldiers in Revolt. He then became one of the leaders of the nuclear-disarmament movement, directing the group SANE and helping to organize the march of more than a million people in Central Park in 1982. “When I started we had maybe 2,000 people on the membership list but very few of them were active. When I left in 1987, there were 150,000 members.”
After years of moving in and around the same circles, Cortright and Lopez’s paths crossed in 1987 when Lopez was invited to give a talk at Tufts University’s new peace studies program. After the talk, Cortright approached Lopez and expressed his enthusiasm about the new Kroc institute at his alma mater. Soon thereafter, Cortright was brought to Kroc as a research fellow. Additionally, in 1992 he was hired as president of the Fourth Freedom Forum, a small family foundation in Goshen, Indiana, dedicated to promoting the “force of law" over the “law of force.”
In 1992, Lopez and Cortright were discussing potential areas of scholarship on which to collaborate. They noticed that in the wake of the Gulf War, not only had the Security Council passed comprehensive sanctions against Iraq, but it had recently added Yugoslavia and Haiti. “Oddly, no one had done very much research on economic sanctions,” Lopez says. So they set out to fill the gap.
As a point of collaboration, economic sanctions were nicely at the center of the two men’s respective interests. “David could be true to his role as a president of an organization that was interested in economic means of building peace,” Lopez says, “and I could be true to an agenda of peace through rule of law and peace through nonviolent means.”
The use of economic sanctions was not new. When the U.N. charter was drafted in 1945 it included a provision for the Security Council to implement “complete or partial interruption of economic relations" in response to “breaches of the peace.” For most of the United Nations’ history, Cold-War deadlock meant that gathering sufficient Security Council votes to impose sanctions was an impossibility, with the notable (and much celebrated) exceptions of comprehensive sanctions against the white supremacist governments of Rhodesia in 1966 and South Africa in 1977.
With the Cold-War deadlock broken in 1989, sanctions became an increasingly attractive option. Motivated by political desire among Security Council members to provide some response to international bad actors without committing troops or attempting a military response, sanctions appeared to offer little cost and the promise of some benefit. Although sanctions were applied routinely in the early 1990s, little work had been done on the policy side to evaluate their effectiveness.
The Notre Dame scholars decided in 1993 that they should investigate the consequences of sanctions, and they put together a conference. “I couldn’t believe how many people attended and how every U.N. official we invited was willing to come,” Lopez recalls. “We had people together for two-and-a-half days, and, wow, it just took off.”
Lopez and Cortright edited the conference presentations and published them as a book, Economic Sanctions: Panacea or Peacebuilding in a Post-Cold War World? They then embarked on a series of case studies that evaluated the now-proliferating sanctions. The conventional wisdom at the time, as Lopez points out, was that sanctions didn’t work. This conclusion was based largely on a series of studies conducted by the Institute for International Economics in the 1990s. Grouping together all sanctions imposed by single countries (such as the U.S. embargo on Cuba), international bodies and the United Nations, all the way back to 1914, the studies found sanctions to be “successful" roughly 35 percent of the time.
The duo saw a deep problem with the study and its underlying quest. Asking whether “sanctions work" is, in many respects, as useless a question as asking whether war works. The answer is: it depends. World War II worked, World War I, not so much. As Lopez and Cortright began to study the implementation and the effects of sanctions, they shifted the discussion away from “do sanctions work?" toward “under what conditions do sanctions work?" They also investigated the costs to the countries imposing the sanctions and to the civilian populations in the countries upon which sanctions were imposed.
So Lopez and Cortright set out modernizing and updating sanctions scholarship, equipped with an ever-expanding set of data. As they continued to publish studies, the Security Council continued to hand out sanctions. The need for knowledge and analysis was pronounced.
“Governments like to pretend that they know everything,” says Carne Ross, who was the United Kingdom’s Middle-East expert at the United Nations from 1997 to 2002, “but in fact they are skating across the surface just like everybody else. When you have technically competent people coming in and giving you advice, you take it quite seriously. That was the value of their work. It’s pretty rare in foreign policy to come across people who have actually done the research.”
Through their access to the community of policy makers, Lopez and Cortright became a way for the United Nations to talk to itself, at a time when the proverbial left hand and right hand involved in making policy had no idea what the other was doing. “So within the [U.N.] building in New York, it’s what are they doing at the State Department?" Lopez recalls. “And in the State Department, it’s what are they doing at the U.N.? In the Haiti committee: what are they doing over at the Yugoslav committee? It’s absolutely unbelievable.”
For the first few years of their work on sanctions, sanctions policy questions largely flew under the public radar. Any issues were the concern primarily of the technocrats inside the United Nations charged with implementing and overseeing sanctions. That would change in the mid-1990s as the effects of the comprehensive sanctions in Iraq claimed international attention.
In 1995, researchers for the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimated that 576,000 Iraqi children under age 5 had died as a result of sanctions. (Although that figure was later called into question, even the most authoritative studies place the number of infant deaths in the hundreds of thousands.) At that point, Lopez says, “We’re hearing from council members nervous about Iraqi sanctions: This is too much. This is over the top.”
As the humanitarian toll in Iraq became more apparent and the sanctions became increasingly controversial, Lopez and Cortright found themselves in the middle of a contentious and passionate debate. Groups such as Voices in the Wilderness began organizing across-the- globe opposition to the sanctions regime, and diplomats outside the United States and Britain came to see them as cruel and inhumane. “The French U.N. rep had a poster on his wall,” Cortright recalls. “It said: Sanctions kill.”
Lopez and Cortright took a “mend it, don’t end it" approach. Using the framework they’d established in their scholarship, they argued that both the humanitarian impact and the political effectiveness of the policy would be improved if the sanctions changed from a punitive model of containment to a bargaining framework. The stick of sanctions, they said, should be matched with the carrot of incentives. In recognition of their general theory of international relations, they even have a bundle of sticks and carrots hanging from the door of one of their offices.
The pair lobbied U.N. officials behind the scenes to alter the Iraqi sanctions to allow limited oil sales, which would produce revenue that could then be used to purchase humanitarian goods. In Lopez and Cortight’s model, this wouldn’t be the end point. Further concessions and cooperation with weapons inspectors by the Saddam Hussein regime would then lead to loosened sanctions, ones that would maintain the airtight arms embargo in place but would expand the civilian goods available and provide some much needed economic stimulus to a desperate populace. “We thought the Iraqi sanctions could be helpful if they could be humanized,” says Lopez, somewhat forlornly.
The middle-of-the-road position granted them few allies, at least in the public debate. The Security Council did alter the structure of sanctions to the Oil-for-Food program in 1995, but the U.S. and British governments, wary of appearing to capitulate to Hussein, acted to make Oil-for-Food as restrictive and punitive as possible. Sanctions foes came to see Oil-for-Food as a cruel ruse, a means of slapping a humane label on a policy only marginally less inhumane than its predecessor. “That’s when we get called baby killers,” Lopez says. This clearly took a toll on both men.
“One of the most poignant moments for me,” says Lopez, “was sitting in a meeting with the U.S. Conference of [Catholic] Bishops and there’s one of my great heroes, Bishop Gumbleton, saying, ‘These are immoral! Take them off.’" Lopez pounds the table for emphasis.
In the midst of this sanctions impasse, each side dug in. The Iraqi government, faced with no rewards for continued compliance, stopped complying and began using the deaths of its citizens as a propaganda tool. The United States and British tightened the reins on “dual-use goods,” everything from medicine to refrigeration equipment that conceivably could have been used for weapons production.
Despite the fact that the debate was shot through with bad faith and the high-octane rhetoric of moral indignation, Lopez and Cortright maintained a tremendous degree of respect from all sides of the argument. “It’s hard to say enough about how much George and David have contributed to the thinking and scholarship and the policies involving economic sanctions,” Joy Gordon, a professor of philosophy at Fairfield University who emerged as one of the leading critics of the Oil-for-Food program, wrote in an email. “They’ve provided an important moral voice in an area—international relations—that’s often dominated by pragmatic self-interest. . . . I’ve rarely seen senior scholars of their caliber who have also shown such a commitment to collegiality, to exchanging ideas and supporting the work of others in the field.”
A Republican staffer on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that had called Lopez to testify during the Oil-for-Food hearings in 2004 agreed. What distinguished Lopez, the staffer said, was that he could be counted on to provide a “nonpartisan, objective view" in a highly politicized proceeding. “The sanctions debate was very polarized,” says Carne Ross of the U.K. mission, “and [Lopez and Cortright] came forward with ideas to try to break the division.”
Through the 1990s, Lopez and Cortright continued working to refine the sanctions methodology. The United Nations contracted them to develop a framework for analyzing the humanitarian impact of sanctions. The scholars participated in two international reform initiatives—one in Germany, the other in Sweden—that were part of a burgeoning sanctions reform movement. They advocated what is now termed “smart sanctions,” economic penalties focused tightly on wrongdoers that manage to avoid broad civilian suffering. Their book Smart Sanctions: Tools of Economic Statecraft was published in 2002, and smart sanctions became a more attractive option after its relative success in Libya.
Then came the drumbeat for war, and Cortright and Lopez found themselves once again in a unique position. Through their work on sanctions, they had become experts on the weapons-inspection regime in Iraq. In 2002, they sifted through the evidence and issued a series of policy briefs arguing against the war. Lopez and Cortright had actually read the U.N. special commission reports that detailed what weapons and materials had been identified and destroyed. As they went through the lists they became convinced that few, if any, weapons were left. U.N. inspectors, they wrote that year, “were remarkably successful in their efforts to disarm Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction.”
Though the consensus view among foreign-policy elites was that Iraq did have some kind of a weapons program, Lopez and Cortright’s work gained them notice in some interesting circles. In autumn 2002 the pair was invited to a secret meeting with the CIA. The gathering was a no-paper affair. “No business cards, no pads, no notes, no names,” recalls Cortright. The agents never gave their names but quizzed Cortright and Lopez on their thoughts about weapons proliferation in both Iraq and elsewhere. “They’d read our stuff,” says Lopez. “It was incredible external validation. That’s what gave us a good hunch that we were right on the mark about the weapons data.”
In May 2002, just before the run-up to war gathered steam, Lopez and Cortright submitted an article to the policy journal Arms Control Today, arguing that sanctions were working in disarming and containing Hussein. After dithering, the journal eventually published the piece that September, though only with a matching article from Charles Duelfer, who later headed up the post-war search for WMD. Duelfer argued that sanctions were falling apart and Iraq would continue to have banned weapons as long Hussein was in power.
“I think you could say their work was one of the most often-cited works underscoring the case against the war,” says Johanna Mendelson-Forman, who worked with Lopez and Cortright while at the United Nations Foundation. “Even before the war, people that are now against it basically bought into the nuclear weapons argument.”
Of course, after the fact, Lopez and Cortright’s predictions were proved right and their work vindicated. In 2004, they published a much-cited article in Foreign Affairs titled simply “Containing Iraq: Sanctions Worked.” It made the case that despite hostility toward the policy from both the left and right, the sanctions had succeeded in dismantling the regime’s weapons programs—a fact they had argued before the war. As Iraq continues to speed toward disaster, targeted sanctions have gained in esteem among the international diplomatic community. The United Nations recently imposed smart sanctions on North Korea, and the United States is pushing hard for targeted U.N. sanctions on Iran. “We now have more U.N. sanctions in place against more entities in the globe than ever before,” says Lopez.
In addition to their sanctions work, Lopez and Cortright have now turned much of their attention to counterterrorism. The duo is seeking a cooperative international framework, rooted in collaboration, the rule of law and U.N. leadership, to solve the problems that Al Qaeda poses. They’ve co-written several reports on the subject, and Cortright recently published the book Gandhi and Beyond: Nonviolence for an Age of Terrorism.
The theme that runs through all of their work, from sanctions to nonproliferation to counterterrorism, is how to make peace work—not as an abstract ideal, but as a practical reality. Father Theodore Hesburgh, CSC, who was responsible for raising the money to open the Kroc Institute while he was president of Notre Dame, says that this is the pair’s greatest contribution. “It’s obvious one of the great challenges today is war and peace,” he says. “We have to come down on the side of peace, and it’s not enough to say ’I’m going to be peaceful.’ How do you achieve peace? How do you resolve conflict?"
War seems simple before it is waged and hopelessly complicated as soon as it begins. As Lopez and Cortright have shown, peace, alas, is the same. While literally armies of experts study the complexities of war, far rarer are those who devote themselves to studying the technical complexities of peace.
Chris Hayes is a senior editor of In These Times and an adjunct professor of English at Saint Augustine College in Chicago.