Politics & Policy

Sanctions Don’t Work

Hawks and doves agree.

Hawks and doves may be deeply divided on the use of military force against Iraq, but there is one area on which they may have come to agree: trade sanctions don’t work. The hawks believe that sanctions will never dislodge a determined dictator like Saddam Hussein, while doves now feel that the human cost of sanctions may be too great. Consequently, there needs to be a serious rethinking of sanctions policy.

Trade sanctions have been the offensive line of American diplomacy since at least the 1930s, when they were unsuccessfully used against Japan. They allow diplomats to show their displeasure toward aggressor nations in a way more emphatic than simply withdrawing an ambassador, but without committing the military. That is why the State Department likes them so much. They add an element of force to diplomacy short of armed conflict.

Unfortunately, there is virtually no evidence that sanctions have ever worked. There are few items of international commerce of which the United States has a monopoly. Hence, unilateral sanctions are doomed from the start. Target countries simply buy what they need elsewhere. The only losers are American businesses, which lose sales to foreign competitors.

Multilateral sanctions have a better chance of success, but are hard to maintain. Eventually, they break down, especially when the target country has significant deposits of tradable commodities, such as gold, diamonds or oil. Such things are easily sold on international markets and difficult to trace. There are always those willing to buy sanctioned goods in return for big profits, and countries willing to give them sanctuary.

In the case of Iraq, the nation has ample reserves of petroleum and does not lack for methods of selling it on the world market despite U.N. sanctions. Indeed, much of the oil Iraq sells is done so legally under a U.N. program that allows limited amounts of oil to be sold to purchase food and medicine. Since 1997, when the program began, and 2001, Iraq received $51 billion from legal oil sales, according to a U.S. General Accounting Office report. However, the report also notes that Iraq obtained another $6.6 billion during this period through smuggling and illegal surcharges.

Despite increased efforts by the U.S. and the U.N. to limit illegal oil sales, they appear to be increasing. Last month, the Wall Street Journal quoted a senior White House official as saying Iraq is getting $3 billion per year from them. As time has gone by, the process has become well organized via an illicit pipeline to Syria, and trucks and railroad tankers across the borders with Jordan and Turkey.

Of course, the smuggling and illicit sales go both ways, with Iraq receiving goods and materials banned by U.N. sanctions. These include arms, chemicals, and machinery capable of manufacturing weapons of mass destruction.

Although the lot of the Iraqi people has improved under the food-for-oil program — daily calorie intake has virtually doubled — there are still many deaths blamed on the sanctions. Children and the elderly are the main casualties, resulting mainly from a lack of medicines. It is commonly estimated that 60,000 Iraqis per year die because of the sanctions. Historian Walter Russell Mead notes that sanctions are killing twice as many Iraqis every year as died in the first Gulf War.

One reason for the lack of medicines, which can be imported legally, is that Saddam Hussein and his henchmen routinely resell them on the world market in order to line their own pockets. The profits are used to provide them with the latest Western luxuries and to maintain their lavish lifestyle. By all accounts, Saddam Hussein lives like a king and has never suffered at all from sanctions.

A recent study by the Institute for International Economics found the Iraq sanctions to be pretty much a failure across-the-board. They didn’t get Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait back in 1991. They didn’t force him from power and haven’t brought about compliance with U.N. resolutions requiring disarmament. Indeed, by all accounts, Saddam Hussein has continued to build up his military despite the sanctions. As the IIE study puts it, “the sanctions have not deterred Iraq from continuing efforts to develop chemical and biological weapons and delivery systems, nor have they muted Hussein’s aggressive threats against his political opponents.”

The United States has also suffered from sanctions. The loss of sales by U.S. companies to Iraq is probably trivial. But we suffer heavily from higher energy prices resulting from restrictions on Iraqi oil production and sales. In the absence of sanctions, Iraq could be producing 2 or 3 times more oil per day. However, the main cost of sanctions may be the sense of complacency they gave the world for too long, as everyone thought the Iraqi threat was contained.


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