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December 01
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JUNE 5, 2010 12:35PM

Embargoes Punish People Not Leaders

Rate: 12 Flag

Embargoes and sanctions do not work. Groups of experts on international sanctions commissioned by the UN and the US concluded this fact a decade and a half ago.

A 1997 study by the Institute for International Economics found that since 1970, unilateral U.S. sanctions had achieved foreign policy goals only 13 percent of the time. The study also concluded that sanctions are costing the United States $15 billion to $19 billion annually in potential exports. 

However, smart sanctions may have a chance of working. By targeting the leadership not the people, smart sanctions hurt those in power and not those who are powerless on the ground. Saddam (and the US) cared not if jaundiced babies died due to lack of light bulbs.  UNICEF’s 1999 study that a half million children had died directly because of the sanctions was met with equanamity by the US as being "worth it".

When asked on US television if she [Madeline Albright, US Secretary of State] thought that the death of half a million Iraqi children [from sanctions in Iraq] was a price worth paying, Albright replied: “This is a very hard choice, but we think the price is worth it.

The express purpose of sanctions is to pressure populations to overthrow governments. The UN sanctions on Iraq, which were initially engineered and subsequently kept in place by the US abetted by the UK, were doomed to failure because of the powerlessness of the Iraqi population.  The sanctions did not hurt Saddam who was allowed to trade his country’s oil under the noses of US ships and import luxuries for himself and his cronies.

Libyan sanctions were held up as a success when Gadhafi turned over the suspects in the 1988 bombing of Pam Am Flight 103. This “success” occurred a full eleven years after institution of sanctions.  

The Gazans are being punished because of their democratic election of Hamas. Hamas cares more about its power than its people. It is a struggle between leaderships while both the Israeli and Gazan populations suffer.

NOTE: The topic in this blog is SANCTIONS and/or EMBARGOES not Anti-Semitism or the relative merits of Israeli and Palestinian claims or the relative degree of evil actions among nations. Obfuscate and you are gone.

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What do you know...an even-headed post that makes sense. Love the warnings too. R
I think targeting the populations with sanctions on either side in this particular situation would have little to no effect. Government turns over often in Israel, based on the level of anger, the economy, sometimes scandal and sometimes just the whims of the politically strongest people. Sanctions have shown over time to bring, if anything, only more harder line leaders into power.

I'm unsure how democratically Hamas was elected. Regardless, Gaza seems governed largely from afar and among several nations. It's people are caught in a terrible tug-of-war --literally-- and have much less access to information, communication, modern tools of assembly and action. They seem so carefully "managed" and deliberately uninformed it's hard to imagine sanctions causing them to turn on their own leaders... or knowing where to turn at all.

Thank you for trying to see a solution. I hope I'm wrong and look forward to others' comments.
Wonderful comments all and I thank you.
There must be some basic impulse at work, Stellaa, because they apparently have been used for over 2,500 years. (One of the links cites sanctions being used leading up to the Peloponnesian war.)
I would like to think that there might be a solution but I grow more pessimistic every year.
I always learn very worthwhile information here Steph, thanks. I've often believed sanctions to be a poor choice but didn't know any alternatives. I'll have to look into this "smart sanction" idea, now I'm intrigued...sounds like the moral AND effective way to go.
Thank you for the long and well-considered comment.
I do not pretend to any experise on the region, but I do know a bit about sanctions from research surrounding the lead up to the Iraqi war. I thought it was a timely topic since nations are speaking of sanctions now against Israel, much as they did those against South Africa during Aparthied.
For, you see, it is not only sanctions against Gaza now but Israel. There is some momentum for exactly that.
I've been thinking the same thing steph - do they ever really work? I thought not. Except one maybe, the US Naval blockade of Cuba during the missile crisis. Clearly the US embargoes against Cuba since then have only hurt people, and didn't do a thing to change the government. Thanks for doing the research.
Yes, in the acute phase, the Cuban embargo worked but then it drags on still. At one point, Cubans were living on sugarwater from the leftover cane fields. On their own, they did devise their own organic farming--the only nation to do so ona nationwide basis. But I am sure that they suffered and suffer still.
The Iraqi sanctions were supposed to be acute which is why the world went along with them being so draconian. They went on too long as well.
Hear, hear! The problem with such uses of power is that the powerful always 'wield' force against the weak rather than exercising power. I would, semantically distinguish such use of 'force' as weakness publicly realized as it looks tough at its inception but it only hurts those who cannot defend themselves. I knew it was hardhearted and ineffective, and now thanks to you I see it's proven to be just plain stupid.

On another note, when people lionize Albright, I wonder, do they know she said that? Ick!
Dr Freeborn,
Thanks for stopping by to comment.
I always think of that horrible quote when I see Albright. It is worthy of a war criminal at best. She typifies for me the woman who rises to power while adopting a male model of strength. She definitely left all she must be as a woman outside her frame of reference. As far as I know, she has never disavowed that statement.
It's getting hard to see the Israeli policy toward Gaza as anything other than apartheid and genocide. I'd still like to be wrong about that.
It is difficult to make any sense of the whole situation. Is it a strategy? Is it a knee-jerk response to threat and fear?
The historical fact that humankind has used this sort of weapon for millenia is an argument for sheer instinct; however, one suspects there must be some objective intelligence behind it, some goal other than defense.
I watch in utter dismay.
The entire premise of sanctions is flawed. Only the little people get hurt and their leaders blame the Great Satan, the United States which never leads to the dreamo belief that the masses will erupt and overthrow their government. The very opposite happens. The information is controlled and the people are brainwashed. It is happening here in real time. Look at the Fox News brainwashed mob. They are told what to hate and how to hate. The same is true in Cuba, North Korea, Iran....you fill in the blank. However, sanctions are better than carpet bombing and other alternatives. If sanctions worked I would have been able to visit Havana on one of my trips. SO frustrating this world.
Hey Dr Spudman!
I am not sure that sanctions/embargoes are used instead of bombs. Seems like the Gaza embargo has been punctuated with violence as well.
They do hurt the little people and none more so than the children, just like in Iraq.
pretty obvious, really. how many populations control the actions of their government? maybe switzerland...

everywhere else, the people are cattle.
the purpose of sanctions is to punish...ergo your premise is faulty.
Thanks for stopping by. All governments do crowd control of their citizens. This is about nations trying to control the population of other nations.
Because national soveriengty is enshrined in the UN charter, sanctions came about to try to change the behaviors of nations-behaving-badly without miltary means. South Africa and apartheid is a good example of this.

have you always been such a shallow reader?
The point is who it is meant to punish and why.
"The point is who it is meant to punish and why."

If you don't understand the concept of "punishment for punishment's sake"...obviously the punishment is meant to punish the people who are suffering. There is nothing more complicated to it.
It IS more complicated than that.
The STRATEGY is to make the people suffer but the STATED GOAL is for that suffering to force the people to overthrow their governments. Smart sanctions (as I mention in the article) are designed to target the leaders and do not hurt the people as much.
The standard sanctions generally do not hurt the leadership because they are the elite and have other ways of gettign their luxuries.
Excellent piece - I couldn't agree more. Sanctions fail because they assume governments or citizens will do what they are incenting them to do, which is a huge assumption.

Take a group of preschoolers - give one half positive reinforcement and the other half negative consequences. The half with positive reinforcement achieve higher every time. What Greg Mortenson has shown through his works in Pakistan and Afghanistan is that grass roots, rebuilding efforts by people respectful of the culture, wins support and brings educated, self-sufficient people into power, especially women. This is where we would be effective, by building rather than destroying. Luckily, he was smart enough not to accept any $ from Rumsfeld, he knew that would turn political in a moment.

I really believe it is up to the people, people who are more fortunate enough to thrive, to help those who can not - YET.
Thank you for the beautiful response. Close to my heart as well.
There is just something about free will that will never replace coercion. I always marveled that any of the Iraqis liked us at all following the decades-long sanctions that US/UK held over them.

Amartya Sen (Indian Nobel Prize winner) wrote that freedom leads to development. Such an important idea, often missed in this world of bullies.
How hard is it for the powers that be to understand that sanctions such as those that were applied in Iraq weaken the general population and therefore strengthen the hold a dictatorship has over them.

Targeted sanctions like the ones you link to may be the answer...I honestly don't know.

Thank you for this, Steph. xx
Thanks, Natalie,
You are so right. The Iraqi sanctions ought to have made them implacable enemies of the US. Kill a people's children and then say "It was worth it" like Madeline Albright, and it can take the edge off any friendship.
Great post Stephanie,

You’re right. Rarely do sanctions do anything more than hurt the people – not the intended governments. Unfortunately, sanctions have always been an easy action to take by our State Dept. Sometimes I think they do it just to show the American public that they’re taking action even though they know it won’t work – not caring that there may be thousands of civilians hurt in the process.

Thanks for this excellent article.
Thanks for the comment, Steven-high praise from someone whose intellect I admire.
I think that the state dept actually thinks they do work because we have many more sanctions on states that never reach the light of day--something like over 100 countries last time I looked. Our poor state dept has been whittled away into almost nothing so maybe it is a way of flexing their muscles.
At any rate, it does not work.