07/11/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Uselessness of Sanctions

Economic sanctions are coward's war. They do not work but are a way in
which rich elites feel they are "committed" to some distant struggle". As a
form of aggression they enjoy lasting appeal to politicians because they
cost them nothing and are rhetorically macho. They embody the spirit of
"something must be done," the last refuge of stupidity in foreign policy.

The African Commonwealth and international communities have
bolstered, flattered and cosseted Robert Mugabe's one-party state in
Zimbabwe for a quarter of a century -- including an early slaughter of the
Ndebele far worse than anything perpetrated last month. Only now that the
dictatorship has become blatant does this cosseting look tasteless.

Champions of economic sanctions can find hardly a shred of evidence
in their favour, as indicated in the celebrated 1999 congressional evidence
of Richard Haass of Brookings. He was reduced to admitting that they were a
"blunt instrument that often produces unintentional and undesirable

Their first use in modern times, against Italy over Abyssinia in 1935,
crashed the lira but did not free the Abyssinians. America's most ferocious
sanctions drove Cuba into the arms of Russia and came near to precipitating
a nuclear exchange. They cemented Castro in power to this day.

The same uselessness was seen in action against Russia, Poland,
Rhodesia, Afghanistan, Nicaragua, Iraq and Iran. Subjecting a political
economy to external siege leads to consequences. It enforces a command
economy, in which the rulers keep what they want for themselves, skimming
every deal and corrupting every transaction. It made Saddam Hussein the
sixth richest man in the world, as it enriched the Taliban warlords, the
Burmese generals and Robert Mugabe.

Sanctions over time destroy the mercantile, managerial and
professional class, the rootstock of opposition to totalitarian government.
They push power into the hands of brute force. The withdrawal of trade
closes factories, farms and mines and can only debilitate the political
effectiveness of those dependent on them. More people must rely on state
handouts, that is on the regime.

Disinvestment transfers local assets to the ruler's cronies and
prevents foreign traders from ameliorating the condition of the people. In
South Africa, sanctions tore up the international code of practice enjoined
on foreign firms. The recent evolution of "smart sanctions", supposedly
aimed at the rich, indicates the absurdity of "dumb" ones.

Rhodesian sanctions created a command economy that supported the
white regime for a decade. This was after Wilson, the British prime
minister, predicted the rebel downfall in "weeks not months". Such
foolishness still rules in London.

Enthusiasts regularly cite South Africa, for the simple reason that
it was sanctioned and its government eventually fell, as if the one led to
the other. I reported this process for a decade in the 1980s and found the
various embargos counter-productive. I was guided by such anti-apartheid
activists as Desmond Tutu and Helen Suzman, who dismissed sanctions as a
liberal feel-good gesture that would merely putting miners and farm-workers
out of jobs. (Tutu later changed his mind under pressure from American
sanctions lobbyists.)

South African sanctions, starting with that most fatuous of
gestures, a sports boycott, led to a burst of white entrepreneurship and
import substitution. The arms manufacturer, Armscor, has to direct its
investment to counter-insurgency and fast became a world leader in the
(illegal) export of field weapons. Indeed the best thing to be said for
sanctions was that they postponed majority rule while a new generation of
blacks were educated and advanced, as firms realised apartheid was coming
to an end.

Those churchmen who regularly cry for this form of economic
aggression, cannot be aware of the implications. They seem to regard it as
clean and anti-capitalist, a phantom revolution, a pacifist path to
political change.

In almost every case sanctions make the evil richer and more
secure, and the poor poorer. What have they done for the Burmese or the
Cubans? It was war that brought change, albeit chaos, to Iraq and
Afghanistan after sanctions had failed. It was war that upheaved Nicaragua,
Rhodesia and Serbia. South Africa was transformed not by sanctions but by
the collapse of the moral coherence of Afrikanerdom, leading to an orderly
transfer of power. It is arrogant for outsiders to claim any part in that
remarkable process.

The only clear-cut case of a sanction working was America's
sabotage of sterling during the 1956 Suez crisis. It was instantly
effective, because Britain was a democracy whose government knew it could
not stay in office with a collapsing currency. This is the true sanctions
paradox: to be susceptible to such pressure a state must have a responsive
government, but then such a government should not need sanctioning.

The dictionary definition of the word is "a specific penalty
enacted in order to enforce obedience to the law." It is fine for Malloch
Brown to sit in a London television studio and talk the pseudo-enforcement
talk of "the game is changing" and "upping the repertoire of sanctions".
This will not enforce obedience to any law.

Only invasion would do that but invasion, in this post-Iraq age, is
rightly considered a step too far. So instead we pretend. We toss gestures
that will not bring about Mugabe's downfall, only make the poor less able
to resist his thugs. And all so we can feel better for a day.