Sanctions Don’t Work, But They Do Make Obama Look Tough


Commentators across the spectrum support Obama’s recent executive order allowing economic sanctions to be placed on Putin’s “inner circle.” The fact that hardly anybody opposes this is instructive.

To put it simply: sanctions don’t work. The well known political scientist Robert Pape 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 targeted nation changed policy in the desired direction of the imposer nation).

In the Los Angeles Times, Andrew Cockburn criticizes the “wholly mistaken belief that [sanctioning] makes the targets do what we want.” Cockburn delves into an eloquent and persuasive debunking of the near-universal belief that harsh economic sanctions on Iran “brought them to the table” and pressured them to make concessions. Former U.S. Ambassador to Iran William Miller described that narrative as “total nonsense.”

I’ve written about this several times myself. To make a long story short: (1) Iran made an even better offer back in 2003, before the worst of the sanctions (and it was rejected by the U.S.); (2) once the sanctions began in earnest, Iran became even more defiant. In 2003, Iran had 164 centrifuges operating and no 20% enriched uranium. After a decade of escalating sanctions, in 2013 Iran had 19,000 centrifuges and a sizable stockpile of 20% uranium. If that’s success, I’d hate to see failure.

A good example of the mindless enthusiasm for sanctions appeared in yesterday’s Washington Post. “Putin won’t back down, or be kicked out, until credible threats to his power create a split among his elites and advisers,” Garry Kasparov wrote in advocating harsh sanctions on Putin’s inner circle. “Right now they have no incentive to bet against him. Putin protects them and their assets while the free world they enjoy living in has made no moves that would force them to choose between their riches and Putin.”

Does Kasparov really believe Putin’s lifelong friends and sycophants who have been enriched by sticking close to the president of Russia’s profoundly corrupt economic system will suddenly decide to oppose Putin’s foreign policy and initiate some kind of silent coup just because Obama targets them with sanctions? This is a fantasy. More likely, as we see from history, Putin and his inner circle will dig in their heels, become more defiantly committed to their cause, and find ways to retaliate.

“Sanctions have an economic impact, there’s no question about that,” the Cato Institute’s Steve Hanke said recently. “But they almost never achieve their political goals and they’re largely symbolic.”

This point about sanctions being symbolic is the important point, as I hinted above. Since they don’t actually change policy in the desired direction, sanctions really serve only one purpose: they make America seem tough. The benefit for Obama is huge in that he neutralizes right-wing criticisms that he is appeasing Russian imperialism. Sanctions are merely for domestic consumption. Aside from making Obama look tough, they serve no greater foreign policy utility.

10 thoughts on “Sanctions Don’t Work, But They Do Make Obama Look Tough”

  1. Sanctions just endorse and further militarize the territorial claims of both states, while impoverishing millions of circumstantial citizens.

  2. Sanctions are just like protests – neither of them work. But they are very often tried, for failure to do "the right thing".

    Sanctions and protests are politically correct. They permit the cowards way of demonstrating objection. But as we all know, they are ineffective as hell, and therefore, are really just a way to appease one's conscience. But this is self-delusion. Why engage in what doesn't ever work? You do it because you "have to do something", but choose the easy path.

    The hard path is to stop trying sanctions and stop protesting. Face the problem head-on. This means confront the people your are against directly. This takes courage, which few Americunts have. None in government have this, they're all typical cowards.

  3. USG never been a democratic nor understanding the concept how democracy works, it can't, because of the fact that USG economic system runs by economical institutions which their concept is not about democratic social economic justice, but rather pure profit and total domination. The political aspects in USG is bound by these institutions to provide them more with profit where in regard to their international domination USG us obligated to follow, if a country don't obey the USG-economic institutions rule then USG is obligated to follow on these economic institutions demand by creating wars. Every sanctions since Iraq has a clear motive, either USG-economic system needs to be the winner based on their falsified democratic rethoric or a war is on the horizon. USG been at war for last 60 years, all of these wars has been about us corporation, Vietnam war, Congo, South America, Middle East and etc. Non of these wars ever been about a functioning people's democracy and or for democracy to function or USG ever been negotiating its economical terms (IMF) considering the people's rights where IMF stealing their economic rights to what they have, look at many African nations rich in natural resources but their economical situations is ruined by either USG-IMF or EU economical institutions which are, if not bad as IMF they are worse then IMF.

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  5. what a shill.
    where is the proof that Putin is running a sycophantic illegal corrupt economy?
    you bum.

    1. I like Glaser's reporting, but I've got to agree with you on this one. Writers always claim that Putin is "profoundly corrupt" without ever providing any proof. Would Glaser rather see the return of the oligarchs that ran wild under the drunk Yeltsin? Also, don't tell the 500,000 children who died in Iraq in the '90's that sanctions don't work. If Putin is corrupt, then what does that make Obama?

  6. No, they do not make Obama look tough – they make him look like an idiot tool of the warmongers. The timidity of the so-called sanctions are intentionally meant to sound tough to those who get their news in 140 characters or less but are surely designed to not upset things too much – which is why Putin and the Russians on the "list" are all laughing.

    I'd sure like to be in the room when Kerry pleads with Lavrov to stay the course regarding Syria and Iran.

  7. Al-Qaeda, which had no presence in Iraq before the U.S. war, is sticking to Iraq’s Sunni provinces now like a malignant cancer, helping destabilize not just Iraq but Syria. Thank information were goods

  8. Israeli forces have displayed a callous disregard for human life by killing dozens of Palestinian civilians, including children, in the occupied West Bank over the past three years with near total impunity, said Amnesty International in a report published today.

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