19 February 2012


In the Boston Review, Natasha Bahrami and Trita Parsi present a persuasive hypothesis titled Blunt Instrument:  Sanctions Don't Promote Democratic Change.  The target de jour is Iran, whose nuclear enrichment program presents the world with legitimate concern over the proliferation and use of nuclear weapons in a volatile region.  It is a quandary which surfaces in cycles ~ how do nations which possess nuclear armaments persuade non-nuclear nations that it's a bad idea ~ "do as we say, not as we do"?   We encounter the same risk of hypocrisy when we try to dissuade developing nations from building industries or technologies which threaten the environment, when we ourselves have yet to sign the Kyoto Protocol, or in other ways join the world in addressing the very real threats of air pollution and global warming.  Our reticence speaks volumes for the degree to which corporate interests exert more control over our government than does the will of the people.

Setting aside environmental issues for the moment, world efforts to halt the development and reverse the spread of nuclear weapons are an utter necessity.  An EU embargo on Iranian oil, and U.S. sanctions against Iranian banks, are ostensibly steps in that direction.  But according to the authors, underlying the official objective of halting proliferation is another, more political purpose ~ "Unofficially, there are hints that the sanctions are aimed at collapsing the Iranian regime and bringing about democratic change.  Supporters of the policy assume that there is a positive relationship between broad economic sanctions and democratization.  The policymakers responsible for these measures either are ignorant of or are simply ignoring the empirical evidence:  broad sanctions ~ total financial and trade embargoes ~ do not have a good track record of changing target countries' policies or of pushing them toward democracy.

" .... of 116 cases of sanction since 1914, only 34 percent have been successful.  Scrutiny of those cases suggests an even lower rate.  [One scholar asserts that] economic sanctions 'are often a prelude to using force, not an alternative to using force.'  Indeed, other studies have shown that broad economic sanctions actually increase the likelihood of military conflict.

"While broad economic sanctions rarely achieve their goals, especially with respect to regime change, the question remains whether they aid in democratization.  Unquestionably, they aren't necessary.  Of 35 authoritarian states that successfully transitioned to democracy since 1955, only one ~ South Africa ~ did so under broad economic sanctions.  Even in the South African case, it is not clear whether sanctions helped the transition to democracy or if they actually prolonged apartheid.

"While there is little evidence to suggest that broad sanctions support democratic transition, we know that they often obstruct human rights efforts and can strengthen a repressive regime.  A range of sanctions scholarship focuses on ways in which authoritarian states use external sanctions to cement their hold on power, regardless of how severe the overall economic costs are .... A strong coercive strategy against resistant regimes should precisely target the regime's core to prevent the redistribution of suffering to the population.  'Smart sanctions' ~ an increasingly popular form of limited sanctions intended to focus hardship on the regime ~ could change the way states sanction each other.  But there are limited avenues for directly punishing officials while avoiding the general population."

I'm struck by the parallels between broad vs. surgical sanctions against unstable regimes, and broad vs. surgical military strikes against terrorists based in other countries.  Certainly the use of small teams of Special Forces, Delta operatives, and Navy SEALs has been far more effective in the battles against al-Qaeda and against the Taliban, than has the presence of many tens of thousands of conventional troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan.  

So what's the answer for the Iran problem?  How do we prevent a nuclear exchange between Iran and Israel, one which could rapidly spread to engulf the Middle East, drawing in respective allies from around the globe?  I have a strong feeling that both Israel and the Arab League are working behind the scenes to pressure Iranian President Rafsanjani to severely limit or denounce his nuclear ambitions (just as the Arab League is pressuring Syrian President al-Assad to cease the violence against his own people, or face being deposed).  The trick will be to find a solution which allows every leader to save face, both before the world community and before his own people.  

And that may be the key ~ for the U.S. and other developed nations to reassess their roles in the world, recognizing that just because a country does not have a seat in the UN Security Council does not mean we shouldn't respect its right to self-determination, informed by that country's willingness to cooperate with other nations and to refrain from unacceptable behaviors like genocide, political repression, and .... developing nuclear weapons.

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