promoting the unwanted, redheaded stepchild that is individual liberty

Who do sanctions really hurt?

In foreign policy, war and peace on October 28, 2009 at 12:08 am

We often hear the term sanctions being thrown around by media. Economic sanctions, military sanctions, U.N. sanctions — they’re all perceived as a more humanitarian tool for achieving political ends; with war being the last result.

But who do sanctions really hurt? The rich and powerful government officials residing in their palaces? Or do the actually harm the everyday people in these countries struggling to survive?

Are sanctions a more humanitarian tool than war? I don’t know. But I do know that sanctions, like war, are force.

Imagine what would happen to America if the rest of the world imposed sanctions on us. The result would be great hardship for the American people. And we are a wealthy nation.

Consider this recent statement by AEI resident scholar Fred Kagan and supporter of sanctions on Iran:

“Look, we need to be honest about this, Iranians are going to die if we impose additional sanctions.”

Rebecca Griffin, a writer for Peace Action West’s Groundswell Blog, makes the argument that sanctions don’t work and actually empower the current regime. In her opinion, sanctions create a “sanctions economy” where smuggling is the money maker.

Not only can private individuals take advantage of a sanctions atmosphere, but so too can governments. Griffin argues that sanctions actually serve those in power by increasing their control of an economy and knocking out foreign competition. She also says that sanctions in Iran will inhibit the pro-democracy movement:

“Some people are inclined to take the more punitive route based on their disgust at the Iranian government’s treatment of protesters. While the outrage is warranted, sanctions are a misguided and dangerous response. If we want to support the pro-democracy movement in Iran, we must follow its lead.”

For more of Griffin’s news and views on sanctions, click here.

  1. Jessica,

    Ok, you have now shown the “horrors” of two principle tools of power in international relations, military and economic. What is left other than gentle persuasion? And of course is such persuasion does not work, what next? Let them go ahead and “do their own thing” like wiping out Israel of routinely flying planes into our cities, or ……?


  2. Jessica, thank you for linking to my post on sanctions.

    Anson, there is not just “gentle persuasion.” There is something called tough-minded pragmatic diplomacy that Nixon used with China, Reagan used with the Soviet Union, and many other smart leaders have used to advance US interests and increase our security. It is not about asking people nicely to change their behavior; it’s working together strategically to surface areas of common interest and make compromises in exchange for incentives.

    In addition, Iran does not have the ability to wipe out Israel and is not suicidal enough to even try. And Iranians had nothing to do with flying planes into our cities. They haven’t attacked another country in hundreds of years.

  3. Rebecca,

    You are correct only to a degree, in my view. Nixon and Reagan for sure used “tough” diplomacy. But it was tough only because the “threat” of massive American economic and military power stood firmly behind such diplomacy. Look at “strategic deterrence”. Without a nuclear arsenal behind the policy of mutual assured destruction (MAD) it would have been empty policy. The presence of a Cold war that did not become HOT, whether nuclear or conventional stands as testimony to that position. Nixon and Reagan understood that principle and, in my view, George McGovern did not. Look what happened politically. Even the American people at that time understood it as well.

    A “100 pound weakling” in a school yard can be as “tough” actting as he may choose. But what happens when a 200 pound bully calls his bluff?


  4. The idea that threats are going to convince Iran to abandon its nuclear program point to a fundamental misunderstanding of the political dynamics within Iran and the national pride that is closely linked to Iran’s maintaining its ability to enrich uranium. Here is an OpEd I wrote that explains some of this:

    What makes people think that threats and sanctions are going to work after a 30-year record of failure?

  5. Rebecca,

    I agree 100% that empty threats do not a “policy” make. “Walk softly and carry a big stick” has long been our approach. Seldom have we had to use the stick, my example of the Cold War being pertinent. Sometimes we failed to use the stick at the right time, WWII being a point, and the terror of war was made far worse as a result.

    History is replete with examples of the right balance between diplomacy and war for the correct reasons. A few times in history diplomacy with the strength of the ability to wage war on terms unacceptable to our opponents has prevailed.

    I agree that empty threats against Iran will not deter their acquisition of nuclear materials and weapons Thus far they are calling our apparent bluff and it is working as their centrifuges continue turning.

    Of course you and I will never agree on the time to use military and perhaps even economic force. That is not necessarily bad. Our debate can at least lend clarity to each of us in our personal views and others can make their own choices.

    You can check my blog at to see my views in more detail on this and other matters.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: