Guest Column

The Folly of Sanctions

By Stanley A. Weiss 9 April 2013

Washington—Playing in theaters across the United States is a film called “Upside Down,” about an alternate universe where twin worlds sit stacked like bread in a sandwich, separated by opposite gravities. If our world could somehow have a similar twin, last month would have marked the 10th anniversary of Saddam Hussein’s willingness to abandon his nuclear program without a shot being fired. Headline writers would have sung the praises of the sanctions regime imposed by the United Nations, which compelled Saddam to abandon his push for weapons of mass destruction. Abu Ghraib would still be a little-known, nondescript prison on the outskirts of Baghdad. And 4,808 American soldiers would still be alive to celebrate birthdays, weddings and Little League baseball games.

Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. The economic sanctions imposed on Saddam after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990—leading to the Gulf War between Iraq and a UN-authorized coalition force led by the United States—were ineffective. In fact, the UN Security Council as early as 1991 conceded that the sanctions were only causing the Iraqi people undeniable suffering, eventually leading to the deaths of more than one million people, most of them children.

As Saddam’s nonexistent weapons of mass destruction are put in America’s rearview mirror, fresh concerns are being raised about North Korea’s all-too-real nuclear agitation and Iran’s progress toward becoming a nuclear power. As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warns that there needs to be a “clear and credible military threat to Iran”—even while US President Barack Obama admitted on Israeli TV that Iran was a year away from a nuclear weapon—the question needs to be asked: Why is the West still so enamored of economic sanctions? With a few rare exceptions—apartheid in South Africa comes to mind—sanctions have rarely had any effect on dictators and autocrats, who continue to live in luxury even while their people starve.

Ask Thomas Jefferson, who tried to impose a trade embargo on Britain in 1807 to stop the British Navy from seizing US ships, only to see Britain invade in 1812. Ask Franklin Roosevelt, who instituted an oil embargo against Japan as it terrorized Asia in the 1930s, only to get the attack on Pearl Harbor in response. Or ask John Kennedy, who initiated a permanent economic embargo of Cuba in 1961 (but not before procuring 1,200 of his favorite Cuban cigars), only to see those sanctions become the longest in modern history. Not even the failed sanctions on Iraq had an effect on America’s desire to see every foreign policy challenge as a nail to be solved with the hammer of sanctions—from 1993 to 1996, 42 percent of all nations bore the “burden” of US sanctions.

In my frequent visits to Burma—during the two decades in which America sanctioned its ruling military junta—ordinary people would tell me: “We love [long-time political prisoner and now opposition leader] Aung San Suu Kyi. We hate the military. But please, get rid of the sanctions.” They knew the only people who suffered were the 50 million citizens who lived in poverty, while leaders fulfilled all their needs by inviting China in through the back door. The only reason the South African sanctions succeeded was because there was no back door: Every nation, including China, participated. There was no way to circumvent the sanctions.

Let’s call this what it is: chicken soup diplomacy, a way to feel good about taking action while ignoring the effectiveness of the effort—and whom it affects. Despite sanctions, in North Korea ordinary citizens waste away in prison camps while the country’s elite can be seen ferrying refrigerators and plasma-screen TVs from Beijing to Pyongyang. Meanwhile, medical costs for the average Iranian have skyrocketed, prompting one senior US official to acknowledge, “The people may be suffering in Iran, but the supreme leader isn’t, and he’s the only one who counts.”

In fact, the latest evidence from Iran is that sanctions are having the opposite effect: According to a report recently released by a panel of US experts, popular resentment toward the United States over sanctions is helping the mullahs in Tehran deflect some of the blame for the economic crisis, limiting public outcry over its nuclear policies.

Ask yourself this: Would sanctions have had any effect on the aspirations of the world’s existing nuclear powers, all of whom had different reasons for developing such capabilities? The US was concerned that Adolf Hitler would get there first. Britain and France wanted to be thought of as world powers. The Soviets wanted a deterrent to the United States. For a China humiliated by Japan, it was about self-protection—as it was for India, humiliated by a Chinese invasion with far superior conventional forces in 1962. Pakistan, in turn, believed it needed nuclear weapons to deter India’s much stronger conventional force. Meanwhile, Israel built an arsenal of last resort.

A well-respected former Asian defense minister once said to me, “The world always wants to believe that nuclear weapons are about aggression, but they are really about respect.” That is certainly the case with North Korea, which is so desperate for the West’s attention that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un had former NBA star Dennis Rodman deliver a diplomatic mash-note to Obama last month, asking for a phone call.

Iran is a different case. Many Sunnis and Shiites in the Middle East are suicidal. Iran is not. It wants a Shiite nuclear weapon and seems to believe it can only defend itself as a nuclear power. The real danger is not that Iran will use a nuclear weapon, but that it will kick off a nuclear arms race across the Sunni world (or, like Pakistan, become a Wal-Mart for jihadists). But if America isn’t willing to proffer the credible military threat that Netanyahu demands, even while Iran’s progress toward nuclear weapons continues unabated, then maybe it’s time to try something radically different.

As six world powers meet with Iran this week in Kazakhstan to discuss its nuclear program, maybe the United States should stop trying to coerce Iran from having nuclear weapons. Instead, it should make the following message clear to Iran: There is a lot that America can do for you and with you—witness’s Burma’s dramatic blossoming since re-engaging the United States—if you abandon this obsession with nuclear weapons. Without nuclear weapons, you won’t be in any danger. But with nuclear weapons, you will only make your existence much less secure.

Then, to remind Iran of the dangerous game it is playing, the United States should deliver a very clear warning: If any nuclear material or weapon is used against America or any of its allies, we will hold you responsible, whether you are directly or indirectly involved. And make no mistake about it, you will feel the full fury of American power—and your towns and cities will never look the same.

It’s time we realize that America’s greatest tool to force change is not sanctions, but economic engagement. “If sanctions are among our more powerful sticks,” former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton once said, “our culture of entrepreneurship is one of our most effective carrots, an often overlooked element of our economic statecraft and a source of American power.” When the United States withdraws economically from a country, we sanction ourselves out of influence and leave a vacuum that China and Russia eagerly fill. By contrast, as US investment has cautiously returned to Burma, the country has turned away from China’s growing regional power and influence and embraced liberalization.

“It’s extremely politically incorrect to say it,” Burmese democracy activist Maung Zarni, formerly a leading advocate of Burma sanctions, told me. “But economics, perhaps even more than politics, is the key to progress.” The sooner Western policymakers understand this, the sooner we can make real headway with countries like Iran. And we won’t even need an alternate universe to see progress.

Stanley Weiss is founding chairman of Business Executives for National Security, a non-partisan organization of senior executives who contribute their expertise in the best practices of business to strengthen the nation’s security. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Irrawaddy.

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