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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.

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.

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.