- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 22, 2005

A nation that is boycotted is a nation that is in sight of surrender. Apply this economic, peaceful, silent, deadly remedy and there will be no need for force. It does not cost a life outside the nation boycotted, but it brings a pressure upon the nation which, in my judgment, no modern nation could resist. President Wilson, 1919.

The war in Iraq and the continuing scandal over the U.N. oil-for-food program may have just claimed another victim — the international community’s appetite for comprehensive economic sanctions as a tool of foreign policy pressure.

After more than a decade in which the U.N. Security Council showed an unprecedented willingness to sanction and isolate member nations, specialists and scholars say the poor track record of many of the punitive programs has caused major powers to pull back.

The $65 billion oil-for-food program for Iraq was simultaneously one of the most ambitious economic sanctions programs attempted and one of the biggest financial scandals in the history of the United Nations, dividing the Security Council and tarnishing the reputations of Secretary-General Kofi Annan and leading politicians and business leaders worldwide.

U.N. image marred

Mark Malloch Brown, Mr. Annan’s chief of staff, conceded the scandal had damaged the United Nations’ image worldwide. He said the oil-for-food program’s problems could be traced to fundamental design flaws and political misjudgments.

“I tell you, and I say this with English understatement, that we will do things differently next time,” Mr. Malloch Brown told a House hearing on U.N. reform last week. “It was a well-learned lesson for us.”

A Senate staffer involved in one of a half-dozen Capitol Hill probes of the oil-for-food scandal, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said: “If we’re going to have sanctions programs in the future, we’ll have to understand how the oil-for-food programs failed, and failed in such a spectacular way.”

Joy Gordon, an associate professor at Fairfield University who has studied the sanctions programs imposed on Iraq during Saddam Hussein’s rule, said the United States and Britain share much of the blame for the programs’ shortcomings, and that international support for the comprehensive economic sanctions on Iraq began to weaken almost immediately after they were imposed in 1990 after Saddam invaded Kuwait.

Innocents also suffer

“The humanitarian damage done by comprehensive sanctions on Iraq came as a shock to many nations and to the U.N. itself,” Ms. Gordon said.

“What we’ve seen since is a continued willingness to consider sanctions, but they’ve not been on the comprehensive scale that was imposed on Iraq,” she said.

The new skepticism follows a decade in which the Security Council approved partial and comprehensive economic sanctions at a vastly expanded rate.

During the 45 years of the Cold War up to 1990, when the United States and the Soviet Union wielded U.N. vetoes in a world sharply divided into two competing blocs, the Security Council imposed major economic sanctions only twice, against Rhodesia in 1966 and South Africa in 1977.

Soviet collapse cited

The situation changed sharply when the Soviet empire collapsed, said author and analyst David Cortright.

After the Iraq sanctions were approved in 1990, Mr. Cortright said, the Security Council approved over the next nine years partial or comprehensive sanctions against Yugoslavia, Libya, Liberia, Somalia, Cambodia, Haiti, Angola, Rwanda, Sudan, Sierra Leone and Afghanistan.

States imposed unilateral, bilateral or regional sanctions during that period on more than three dozen occasions — with the United States among the most active players. The sanctions were imposed for a variety of reasons, from human rights to attempted “regime change.”

But the use of sanctions was “not without controversy,” he noted.

Force follows isolation

“In Iraq, Yugoslavia and Haiti, sanctions gave way to the use of military force. In the African cases, especially Angola, Liberia, Rwanda and Sierra Leone, U.N. sanctions appeared to have little influence on the use of force by various national and regional parties,” Mr. Cortright wrote in a 2000 study.

“Only in Libya did sanctions appear to accomplish their objectives without military confrontation.”

Gary Clyde Hufbauer and Kimberly Ann Elliott, researchers at the Washington-based Institute for International Economics, conducted one of the most comprehensive surveys of the effectiveness of economic sanctions as a foreign policy tool, examining 116 case studies dating to World War I.

Policies hard to alter

Successful sanctions programs — a minority — tended to feature modest goals such as freeing a political prisoner rather than ending a government policy such as apartheid; a small and weak target; and a quick and decisive implementation, as opposed to slowly ratcheting up the pressure.

The researchers noted that sanctions are intended as a political signal to domestic voters, signifying disapproval. “Sanctions can provide a satisfying theatrical display, yet avoid the high costs of war,” they concluded.

One flaw in the Iraq oil-for-food program unlikely to be repeated was letting the target regime pick its business partners. Ms. Gordon said Saddam predictably used the power to reward friends and curry favor around the globe.

U.S. leans to sanctions

Despite the mixed record, the U.S. government remains one of the most active users of sanctions as a policy, both unilaterally and through international bodies such as the United Nations.

The Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control tracks sanctions programs targeting nearly a dozen countries and monitors financial and other restrictions on nations that trade in drugs or illegal diamonds, that violate nonproliferation accords or that aid terrorist groups.

President Bush last week extended broad U.S. sanctions against Burma’s military junta, criticizing its repression of political and human rights.

Burma’s policies “pose a continuing and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States,” Mr. Bush said in a letter to Congress.

Iran may be next

But international willingness to impose new sanctions in the post oil-for-food era could be sharply tested if the question of Iran’s suspected nuclear-weapons program is referred to the Security Council.

The Bush administration has been pressing for tough action, but almost certainly will face resistance from veto-wielding Security Council powers Russia and China.

Mr. Annan last week sounded almost fearful that the Iran sanctions question soon could pose another divisive problem for the organization.

“Not everything has to come to the Security Council,” he told USA Today, “and we as an organization do not claim a monopoly in resolving all these questions.”

“If they can be resolved elsewhere, we would applaud it.”

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