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Do ‘Sanctions’ Work?

Overused, politically charged words have a funny way of draining themselves of all meaning.

by
Robert Wargas

Bio

January 28, 2012 - 12:33 am

If you read position papers and academic studies on the subject, however, it becomes immediately clear that economists and political scientists, possessed of oppressive amounts of data, still aren’t sure what conclusions to draw. One of the first casualties of the debate, I have found, is usually the distinction between an effective policy and a successful one. It is undeniable that sanctions have an effect; whether that effect helps to realize the goal determines whether the policy was successful. The two must be kept separate.

There are at least two possible outcomes to implementing sanctions against a state. The first and, in my estimation, least likely is that the measures will work as planned: the regime will either relent and go along with a diplomatic solution or, in the case of an increasingly eroded power structure, implode (this could mean civil war, which is likely in Syria). The second possible outcome is that they will not work: the regime will manage to sustain itself. It follows necessarily from this scenario that the people will bear the ill effects of halted trade and investment. This is especially true for centralized or rentier economies, which autocrats can rack and bleed even more cruelly as their palace funds run dry. Cuba is the most salient example. After more than five decades of sanctions against them we have received five decades of rule by the same Communist criminals (with all the attendant bonuses like the Cuban Missile Crisis). Iraq, too, figures in to this spotty record. Sanctions took effect almost immediately after Saddam Hussein annexed Kuwait in 1990; nearly thirteen years later, he was still firmly in control of his terrorized nation, and had enough clout and wherewithal to resist the efforts of the “international community” to keep him in compliance with at least a dozen useless UN resolutions.

Indeed, the history of sanctions demonstrates a freakishly confused record, one in which conclusions, if there are any, suffocate beneath tons of conflicting statistics. Thus in the absence of scientific clarity we have mere anecdotes; each side has its own favorite examples to offer when the debate heats up. You might hear about the case of South Africa, for example — the ultimate sanctions success, so we are told. The narrative goes that the West, especially Britain, effectively subsidized the apartheid government throughout the early decades of the Cold War by refusing to sign on to a sanctions regime. Only after a large, campus-based anti-apartheid movement did people like Ronald Reagan agree to cut off Pretoria. Thanks to the sanctions, the tale goes, apartheid crumbled a few years later.

But the moral of the story is not so easily articulated. South Africa’s economic decline began before Western sanctions took effect, according to one thorough study. How much of the eventual capitulation, if any, should we attribute to sanctions? Are sanctions “good” or “bad”?

If there is a bottom line to exhuming this whole argument, it is that the most basic questions are always the most relevant. And what is more basic than moral criteria? There ought to be very real concern, therefore, that sanctions could, and probably will, significantly damage the civilian population of the target country. This has already happened in Syria. Citizens cannot complete international financial transactions, to name one unfortunate effect. This helps to destroy small businesses that finally had a chance to emerge after Bashar al Assad turned away from the harder aspects of his father’s Ba’athist socialism. The obvious effect is that the regime’s opposition is weakened.

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