Do 'Sanctions' Work?

Politically charged words, over the slow course of their use, have a funny way of emptying themselves of all meaningful content. A “neoconservative” used to be a Cold War liberal who, having witnessed the dry rot of Great Society economics and Soviet appeasement, moved somewhere to the right of center. In its literal meaning of “new conservative,” the word made sense. But consider the evolution: It has been nearly four decades since Michael Harrington’s once-useful term has evolved, or perhaps devolved, into a cheap slur and a newer, more oblique way of asking the Jewish question.

There are other subtle ways in which nuance can be erased. In policy debates, certain words don’t become meaningless tags so much as placeholders for the wider, deeper argument that should be taking place. These days, amid the democide in Syria and the legitimate fear of a nuclear Iran, the word to replace all thought is, once again, “sanctions.” Think of all the relevant questions about sanctions — what they are, how best to implement them, when and against whom they would be most effective — and try to recall when you have ever heard these questions actually asked, much less answered, by our elected representatives and unelected pundits.

This debate, such as it is, might best be described as stillborn; in its place we have the comfort of partisan orthodoxy. “Sanctions never work!” yell the committed leftists. A more extreme corollary of this argument, which you can hear hissed in the pages of The Nation and on Democracy Now! (or perhaps later, if you consider the range of its guests’ views), is that sanctions are tantamount to murder or even genocide. This murder, of course, is always greater than or equal to that committed by the sanctioned country’s rulers. Thus in the early years of the Iraq war, the only relevant question for men like Ramsey Clark and George Galloway was not what effect three decades of Ba’athism had had on Iraqi civilians, but how many people the United States had already killed, even before the first bomb was dropped, by prohibiting trade with Saddam Hussein. (Oddly, in all other instances, it is free trade that is condemned as murderous and imperialistic, and the same who oppose sanctions against anti-Western states are usually those who have led their own efforts to “divest” from Israel.) On the other side of this tarnished coin are the sanctions true-believers, those who are convinced that simply calling for vague, unspecified trade restrictions will work just splendidly, no questions asked.