Are economic sanctions counterproductive?

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Aug. 4 2006 11:06 PM

Regime Change

Are economic sanctions counterproductive?

Jacob Weisberg's analysis of why sanctions don't work prompted this response from Derek Tonkin, former British ambassador to Thailand (1983-86), essentially affirming Weisberg's view of the situation in Burma:

Sanctions have only made the situation worse, entrenched the military regime in power, and delayed the deliverance of the Burmese people from their misfortunes. Yet you have Senator Mitch McConnell assuring the Senate on 26 July 2006 when supporting the renewal for another three years of the sanctions contained in the "Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act 2003" that: "The Burmese people want these sanctions because they want democracy, justice and freedom, and we stand with them." Although it is true that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, whom I met in December 1999, has for her own reasons supported sanctions, I have met no-one during my visits to Burma who thought that sanctions were helping them achieve freedom, and I can only marvel at the Senator's assertion which is not supported by any empirical or anecdotal evidence, naturally in the absence of any opinion polls.

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Artlessdodger assesses the effectiveness of the Cuban model:

The first problem with using Cuba as a model for the failure of sanctions is that for most of the period we've had sanctions against Castro's regime, they've had an outside benefactors to take our place, first the Soviet Union for almost 30 years, then Chavez whose support in recent years has allowed Castro to move away from market reforms tentatively put in place in the 90s. North Korea is also dependent on outside help from China. Zimbabwe lacks substantial outside aid, and Mugabe's regime is clearly the more vulnerable than Cuba, or North Korea. Though aside from his delusions, Mugabe actually doesn't have foreign enemies deadset on seeing him overthrown either.

I suspect the real reason for Castro's success, aside from his genuinely impressive healthcare system, is geography, that so many would be dissidents simply leave the island. IT really is difficult to foment a coup when access to the island is so limited. Besides, since the 60s Cuba has been seen as more of an annoyance than a threat, so the goal of overthrowing Cuba hasn't been a high priority since then. The sanctions have been fairly effective in discouraging the Cuban model. They've contributed to the impoverishment of the island. The sanctions show other governments, and other people in Latin America, the heavy cost of choosing an adverserial with the United States. That's part of why communism never really caught on in the Western hemisphere.

the_slasher14 notes that, in terms of its social makeup, Iran lacks the "racial divide" that made South Africa so internally resistant to reform. Furthermore, "once it becomes obvious that the mullahs are presiding over a system where the standard of living is going to drop sharply as long as they're around, it is unlikely Iranians will spend a generation dithering over what to do." legas is more skeptical, given Iran's possession of "a highly fungable resource" in the midst of a world energy crisis.

For certainly, there is stability in hypocrisy, with ineffective boycotts benefiting both sides politically in favor of the status quo:

The result of our imposition of sanctions is usually a very stable state: our government has pleased the general population by expressing its disapproval of the dictator, and the dictator has earned an external enemy that he can rally his own people against.

The people of both countries respond with nationalistic support of our side in this peaceful conflict, and with no actual military activity, and no economic interaction to destabilize either side, this can go on forever, at least in political terms. Thus we propped up the Ayatollah, andSaddam and Castro, and now we can add Chavez to the list.

Of course, all of this posturing is very hypocritical. Our multinationals create foreign subsidiaries that do business with those disfavored regimes (Halliburton, while Cheney was CEO, had a subsidiary that did oilfield development work in Iran). And smart people in our government are well aware that our imposition of sanctions strengthens the internal political position of the dictator. But it does tend to freeze any expansion and limit any major offenses by the dictators (notable exceptions: Cubans in Angola and Saddam in Kuwait). And the US politicians look like they are doing "something", and that something is very low risk.

So we have supported Castro in Cuba for 45-odd years, and we so overplayed our hand in Iraq that Saddam actually thought we'd let him take Kuwait. And North Korea, and Iran seem like they will go on forever.

But the Cubans in Miami are happy. That's what really matters.

Contribute your insights in The Big Idea. Don't forget to check out the latest posts on Gibsongate in Fighting Words and Hollywood. AC 8:06pm PDT

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Tuesday, August 1st, 2006

In her latest column, Dahlia Lithwick evaluates the validity of privacy claims made by Robert Steinbuch, counsel to Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, after Steinbuch's affair with a D.C. office intern was widely publicized on the Internet, causing him "humiliation and anguish." 

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