Sanctions have lately become a mechanism of choice for addressing international disputes--but do they work?
In its first 45 years, the Security Council of the United Nations (U.N.) had imposed sanctions only twice--on Rhodesia in 1966 and on South Africa in 1977. Then in August 1991 the Security Council put comprehensive sanctions on Iraq (Resolution 661). These were followed in 1991-92 by arms embargoes on the republics of the former Yugoslavia (Resolution 713, September 1991) and Somalia (Resolution 733, January 1992). That spring Libya was put under an arms embargo, a ban on aircraft flights, and a requirement to reduce diplomatic staff (Resolution 748, March 1992). (1) The sanctions against Yugoslavia (consisting then only of Serbia and Montenegro) were widened to include many economic and financial transactions (Resolution 757, May 1992, and Resolution 787, November 1992). Even the Organization of American States, for the first time in its history, imposed sanctions--on Haiti in October 1991.
The Iraqi experience offers some rich lessons about the ambiguity over the aims of sanctions, the varied mechanisms that a government can use to adjust to sanctions, and the impact of sanctions on living standards.
1 What Have Been the Aims of Sanctions?
It is not easy to judge whether the sanctions against Iraq have been successful because what they were meant to accomplish is not clear. The viewpoint, "there is abundant proof that sanctions can work," (2) is hard to evaluate without clear agreement about what "working" means. Success cannot be judged in the abstract.
Before the war, there was a vigorous debate in the United States about the sanctions. Senator Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) described the differences as "at the heart of the debate" about what policies the United States should adopt toward Iraq. (3) One group questioned the effects economic sanctions could have on Iraq, but another group asked what goals sanctions were meant to achieve.
Prewar, there appear to have been four major schools of thought about what the sanctions were designed to do: (1) devastate the Iraqi economy to force Iraq to withdraw quickly from Kuwait; (2) warn Iraq that the world community would--later if not sooner--force Iraq to leave Kuwait; (3) weaken Iraq's ability to defend itself if allied use of force proved necessary; (4) signal worldwide disapproval immediately while deciding on other action.
ECONOMIC DEVASTATION. Sanctions were dismally ineffective at forcing Iraqi withdrawal in the short run and there were no reasonable prospects of success. As Director of Central Intelligence William Webster wrote Congress at the time, "Economic hardship alone is unlikely to compel Saddam to retreat from Kuwait." (4)
WORLDWIDE PRESSURE. Steadily escalating worldwide economic pressure on Iraq might have given Saddam an excuse to climb down and a motivation to do so. The sanctions might also have induced Iraq to be forthcoming in negotiations.
The success of sanctions at achieving these goals is debatable, but it seems unlikely Saddam would have agreed to withdraw despite sustained sanctions. As Congressman Stephen Solarz (D-N.Y.) wrote, "If six weeks of the most intense aerial bombardment in history was not sufficient to bring about an unconditional Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait, it is simply not plausible to suggest that six more mouths of the relatively benign application of sanctions would have done so." (5)
MILITARY WEAKENING. Sanctions have generally been considered a substitute for the use of military force. But another aspect of those sanctions was to cause a deterioration in the Iraqi military so that when fighting took place, the allies could quickly prevail. Analysts anticipated that sanctions, when imposed, could impair the readiness of Iraq's advanced weapons systems. The thinking was: either Iraq would continue training with the systems, and spare parts would become scarce; or training would be halted, spare parts would be adequate, but crews would be unable to use the systems effectively. …