How best, then, to make it all more palatable? Here’s where it gets muddy and the sophistry begins. Sanctions can be successful, but only when their implementation is handled with surgical rigor. The next time you hear someone, whether on the left or the right, talk about “sanctions,” be sure to ask him what type he is referring to. You might be greeted with a pale stare or some befuddled indignation, but the question is not purely a rhetorical one. Targeted sanctions, for instance, work better under certain circumstances than under others; comprehensive sanctions are usually the way to go. Evidence also suggests that multilateral sanctions are more effective than unilateral ones. Put differently, it’s better for a large number of nations to gang up on another nation’s entire economy than for one or two nations to target only certain sectors of the economy. The restrictions have a greater chance of working this way; thus they are more likely to be over with more quickly, the population being spared years of hardship. These are just a few variables in the polynomial calculus of economic prohibition.
This last point reminds me of a question I hear clever types ask all too often. “We intervened in Libya,” they glibly observe, “so why are we not intervening in Syria?” The question is supposed to demonstrate the inconsistency and hypocrisy of the West. It also serves as a reminder that the “war for oil” leitmotif is still booming in the minds of those who seek comfort in old tropes and slogans: What possible reason could there be, the logic goes, to intervene in selected places if not for the black gold? But only when the debate is left at the level of pure abstraction is this a coherent question. Libya and Syria, to remind those who have forgotten, are two different countries — with different geostrategic implications, different locations, different military capabilities, different population densities, etc. All military interventions are not created equal. To illustrate this point using an extreme example, consider how enforcing a no-fly zone over a place like Gambia would differ from, say, leading a ground invasion of inner Russia.
So with sanctions. Are they unilateral or multilateral? Targeted or comprehensive? What is the nature of the state’s economy? What is the condition of the ruling regime? What works on Syria, after all, might not work on Iran. See? Now you’re getting it. As usual, however, the political pressure to “do something,” or the equally idiotic impulse to stop others from doing something at all costs, has obscured these basic questions.