Is the West Too Quick to Sanction? ; A UN Official Quit Last Week over the Human Cost in Iraq of Sanctions. US Curbs Cover Half of the World Population

Article excerpt

Sanction fatigue is setting in.

This diplomatic stick, employed more times by President Clinton than any other leader in US history, is losing its effectiveness and appeal on the global stage.

High-profile failings of economic sanctions - especially in Iraq - are casting doubt on the future of sanctions as a means of punishment.

The paradox is that in the decades since Cuba was first embargoed in 1960, the intended target of sanctions - whether it be Cuban President Fidel Castro, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, or Serbia's President Slobodan Milosevic - has been able to turn sanctions to political advantage, while neatly handing off the burden to local populations.

The tangle of US sanctions today affect more than half the world's population. But the severity of Iraq's case has for the first time built up a diplomatic head of steam against sanctions for what the US sees as global wrongdoing.

The growing chorus of protest was capped by last Thursday's departure from Baghdad of Hans Von Sponeck, UN humanitarian chief, for Iraq. He resigned rather than preside over the further destruction of Iraq's social fabric.

"Let's face it: Iraq is one of the few countries on our globe which is regressing," said the 32-year UN veteran, in his first interview since leaving Iraq. "I have no doubt that history will say that Iraq was forced to become the guinea pig for the experimentation of a sanction methodology that ultimately failed. We have to find a new approach."

Sanctions may be the modern equivalent of the military siege, in which armies throughout history - from the Romans surrounding the Masada (an ancient Jewish fortress in Israel), to the Germans and Finnish blockading Leningrad in World War II - sought to compel capitulation by destroying the will to resist.

Roots of the American policy reach back to President Woodrow Wilson, who said in 1919 that "a nation boycotted is a nation that is in sight of surrender."

That maxim seems to have been taken to heart by President Clinton, for whom sanctions have all but replaced diplomacy. He has called the US "sanctions happy," and long with Congress, he has been responsible for imposing more than half of the 125 or so cases of sanctions ever imposed by the US.

But such overuse "devalues the tool" and the "moral, disapproval value tends to be lost," says Gary Hufbauer, a sanctions expert and senior fellow at the Institute for International Economics in Washington. Economists estimate that sanctions cost Americans some $20 billion a year in lost export sales, and up to 200,000 jobs.

The lessons of nearly 10 years of sanctions on Iraq are causing analysts to reexamine their assumptions about what few sanctions - out of the 176 recorded cases this century - have caused their targets to change course, and why so many have failed.

"We've done a lot of re-evaluating," Mr. Hufbauer says. "The unfortunate truth is that when you have a truly retrograde regime, and you are seeking a major goal like its overthrow, the record is close to zero."

Sanctions have been applied from North Korea to Canada, and both India and Pakistan were slapped with sanctions - mandatory under US law - when they tested nuclear devices in 1998. Those sanctions hurt US farm exports badly, renewing interest in Congress for reform that would require assessing domestic impact before imposing any sanction.

Despite those cases, Iraq stands out. "Iraq in our times, is like the Italian-Abyssinia case was to the League of Nations. That was the defining sanction, and it did as much as anything to destroy the League," says Hufbauer. "The Iraq case is not going to destroy the UN, but it is certainly causing a lot of rethinking. The lasting impact is that it will be much harder to put these kind of sanctions on any country."

A similar analysis has been put forward by a Brittish parliamentary committee, that found that the Iraq example showed it would be "difficult" to justify imposing similar sanctions on any nation in the future, because they cause "impoverishment" and "only further concentrate power in the hands of the ruling elite. …