Stewart Levey and Christy Clark have a recent piece in Foreign Policy arguing that (1) targeted, punitive economic sanctions imposed on so-called rogue states by the US and the UN Security Council are effective and (2) the US and the UN should do more to enforce sanctions by penalizing those who violate prohibitions on trade with targeted governments. One the first count, they provide exactly zero evidence. On the second, they are blinded by the Divine Providence of US hegemony.
The targeted financial sanctions implemented by the United Nations have gained greater acceptance among governments and the private sector than the full-scale embargoes of years past, and they have had considerable success in advancing their goals. While these measures cannot be a policy in and of themselves, they have the tangible benefit of disrupting illicit networks and pressuring intransigent regimes by making it far more difficult for them to access needed financial services. But even these more powerful targeted sanctions could be dramatically more effective [by imposing consequences for violators].
The burden of proof is on them to demonstrate this supposed “considerable success” of US-UN imposed sanctions regimes. There is much in the political science literature that demonstrates otherwise. Robert Pape, of Dying to Win fame, years ago examined 115 cases of economic sanctions over almost 80 years and found (p. 99) only 5 that could be considered a success (that is, the recipient nation changed policy in the desired direction of the imposer nation). That is a horrible track record.
The most egregious example of a failing sanctions regime is, of course, the case of Iraq in the decade after the first Gulf War. US warplanes destroyed not only military targets but also communications networks, bridges, railroads, oil refineries, and electrical plants. Iraqis were left without power, clean water, or sewage. To follow, were sanctions. Air travel to and from Iraq was banned, various exports were prohibited, per capita income sunk, the whole country suffered. Hundreds of thousands of tons of raw sewage spilled into the Tigris, and Iraq’s infrastructure was so impaired by the sanctions that it couldn’t be fixed and only a minority of Iraqis had access to clean water. Iraqis developed typhoid, cholera, and protein deficiencies at levels usually only seen in famines.
Professor Joy Gordon, of the Global Justice Programme at Yale University: “Iraq had the wealth to rebuild, “but the devastation of the infrastructure and then the almost total cut-off of exports and imports, meant that Iraq was – in the words of a UN envoy – reduced to a pre-industrial state and then was kept, more or less, close to that condition for over a decade after.”
She argues in her book that the best estimate of excess child mortality – the number of children under five who died during the sanctions who would not have perished had pre-war and pre-sanctions conditions continued – is between 670,000 and 880,000
Meanwhile, Saddam Hussein’s power was strengthened and he did not adopt the subservient policies the US demanded. Epic fail.
More importantly, though, Levey and Clark simply take for granted the fact that those so-called rogue states who are currently on the receiving end of US-UN-imposed sanctions regimes are deserving of such treatment, effectiveness aside. They talk about the need to “enforce the rules and punish violators,” apparently unable to see through government propaganda which ignores US violations of “the rules” and which demonizes disobedient “violators.” Rather, those on the receiving end of US-UN-imposed sanctions are those who dissent from US hegemony.
Take Iran, probably top on the list of international Evil Doers on the receiving end of tough sanctions. The sanctions are ostensibly imposed, say the US and UN, to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Embarrassingly, there is no evidence that Iran has a bomb or is even trying to obtain such capability. Now, the effect of the sanctions has been nil, as Iran circumvents the sanctions via China and others who don’t bow down to US dictates. They’ve even been counterproductive since they seem to have “fan[ned] the flames of nationalism within Iran,” increasing support for the regime. But again, the question should not only be are they effective, but also – why Iran?
If we were looking to sanction rogue states who act outside international norms and consistently commit human rights violations, the top candidate would not be Iran. It would be Israel. Just to stick with the most contemporary history, Israel committed war crimes in the 2009 attack on Gaza, and the harsh blockade imposed on the Gaza strip for years has qualified as collective punishment (an international crime). Every time new settlements are built in the occupied territories, the law is violated, and decades of harassment and abuse of ordinary Palestinians has led to UN Resolution after UN Resolution (vetoed by the US, of course) demanding an end to all of it. But the US does not impose sanctions on Israel (instead, they subsidize it).
This is because such things are not motivating factors in which countries the US-UN decide to impose sanctions on. If the US were not so enthusiastically committed to despotism and repression, surely the dictatorship in Uzbekistan would be up for some sanctions, instead of US support. The Bush administration was forced to withdraw support to Uzbekistan for the appalling record of human rights violations, but Obama is reaffirming the alliance. Instead of paying the brutal Bahraini monarchy money and weapons, they might be a candidate for punitive sanctions. The authoritarian government in Yemen would also be a candidate, instead of a close and valued ally.
Hell, if sanctions were legitimately imposed, the United States government itself would be the prime candidate. Levey and Clark frame sanctions as having the aim of “stopping terrorist financiers” and “cut[ting] off the flow of funds to some of the world’s worst regimes.” The US government has refined both of these practices to a high art, so much so that no other state in the world surpasses the US in support for terrorists and repressive regimes. But for Levey and Clark, and most of elite opinion, those states who currently face punitive US-UN sanctions are the deserving “violators,” not because of their actions (which I readily admit are reprehensible) but because they are committing those actions, instead of US.