David R. Henderson  

Sudan Sanctions and My Neighbor's Cat

How Conscious Is Your Robot?... Frank Knight on John B. Watson...
Diplomats here expect Washington to drop sanctions in the fall, as planned during the final days of the Obama administration, not least because they failed to achieve some key goals.

"When the sanctions were implemented, the hope was that there would be a popular uprising against Bashir," one Western diplomat said. "Twenty years on, I think we can safely say that didn't work."

This is from "Sudan Gets Down to Business in the Face of Sanctions and Strife," by Matina Stevis, Wall Street Journal, July 18, 2017.

I posted about it earlier today.

But the quote above is about another aspect that I've written about with respect to other sanctions. Here's what I wrote in "Why Economic Sanctions Don't Work," Hoover Digest, October 30, 1998:

When I was a kid, the boy next door once played a nasty trick on my brother Paul: our neighbor held his cat in his arms, brought it within a few inches of Paul's face, and pulled its tail. The suddenly angry cat bit Paul's face. My brother and I were upset; the cat, we thought, should have bitten the perpetrator's face. I think of that incident whenever I hear people call for economic sanctions against a whole country.

When governments impose sanctions, the officials implementing the policy want to harm the dictator or bad guy heading the other country's government. That's the goal. What they do to achieve it is intentionally harm many innocent people in those countries by cutting them off--if the sanctions are effective--from food, medicine, and other goods that they need or value. The sanctions almost always work in a limited sense: they impose some harm on innocent people in the target country. But that's not the goal. Nor is the goal to cut off the dictator from food, medicine, et cetera. You can be sure that Saddam Hussein and Fidel Castro are not hurting for antibiotics or high-quality food. No. The harm that the advocates of sanctions want to inflict on the bad guys is indirect. They are yanking innocent people's tails so that those people, like our neighbor's cat, will lash out at whoever's face is right in front of them. They want those people to see their own government as the enemy and to try to overthrow it.

But people are smarter than cats. When people suddenly find food, clothing, medicine, and other goods in short supply, when they find themselves a lot poorer and focusing desperately on day-to-day survival, they will take the time to find out who is responsible. And guess what? They do find out. Although governments in embargoed countries like Iran, Iraq, and Cuba strictly control what newspapers, radio, and television report, one piece of information that is sure not to be censored is the role of outside governments in the country's economic distress.

I went on to say:
What do people in embargoed countries do when they find out that foreign governments threaten their survival? They want to do what the cat wouldn't do: bite the hand or face of the perpetrator. In fact, I can think of no case in history where as a result of sanctions imposed by government A on people in country B, country B's people overthrew their own government. It's the stuff of novels, and not very good novels.

To understand how people in embargoed countries feel, you will have to use your imagination. Picture yourself back in 1974. President Nixon's popularity has hit bottom. Many Americans want him out, but he holds on. Now imagine that the head of a freer country--say, Switzerland--thinks Nixon is a vicious leader and imposes sanctions on us. Because of these sanctions, we can't get medicine and we can't feed our families adequately. We spend our days scraping for the basics we need to survive. (Of course this is implausible in the United States, which is why I said you would have to use your imagination.) Now ask yourself: Is your first thought that you should organize and try to overthrow the president?

I bet it's not. For one thing, you don't have much of a shot at succeeding. The Nixon administration is probably in charge of allocating the scarce medicine and food. But more important, you're furious with the Swiss government. "Who are they to interfere in our country's affairs?" you ask. So if Nixon offers you a war against the Swiss infidels, you're likely to say, "Hell, yes," and postpone thoughts of getting rid of your president until you've gotten those foreign bums off your back. And that's probably how Iraqis are feeling right now about the United States and other governments that are participating in the embargo.

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COMMENTS (6 to date)
Shane L writes:

Furthermore, sanctions may help governments to explain away the economic turmoil their own policies have caused. Venezuelan and Cuban governments can claim their socialist policies would be a success were it not for interventions of conspiratorial foreign capitalists.

The fact that sanctions are so strangely applied, with friendly autocracies untouched, further makes a mockery of their attempt to project a moral message.

Thaomas writes:

Dave, the point of sanctions is seldom to get the populace to overthrow the government, but to get the government to change it's policy. The Iran sanctions that led to the nuclear agreement is an example and sometimes to show other countries that bad behavior has a cost.

Ghost writes:

David: the increasing tendency of 'sanctioning' governments to try to target sanctions, by imposing travel restrictions on named individuals (e.g. government ministers) in the targeted country, seems to reflect your logic.

Khodge writes:

Many years ago it was pointed out that the Watts rioting happened at the margins; where life was improving everyone was starting to get better but those who were rioting wanted faster returns.

There seems to be a similar international dynamic: in Cuba the margin moved out of the country; what remained were the socialist and the downtrodden. Sanctions solidified the socialist stranglehold. In China there was no margin but the rulers allowed a middle to develop but were able to moderate the process.

As it stands, Cuba has no reason to let the margin develop so we might expect dropping the sanctions to help ("it feels so good when I stop hitting myself in the head") yet this improvement would not have happened if the sanctions had never been in place.

BC writes:

I doubt many people expect the populace to overthrow the government, sanctions or no sanctions. I think sanctions serve two purposes: (1) penalize/pressure government officials and (2) weaken government's geopolitical and military strength by weakening the target country economically. The people in the sanctioned country are collateral damage. As @Ghost notes, one can try to achieve (1) through targeted travel restrictions and freezing assets. Arguably, (2) has worked somewhat in some cases, albeit at great cost in collateral damage.

Brad Sallows writes:

Where would you fit in South Africa? My recollection is of reading a couple of articles back in the '80s that some (many?) black South Africans acknowledged that sanctions were hurting them, but that sanctions should continue in order to pressure the government. Of course, there was no violent revolution/overthrow. And I suppose the question is: did sanctions contribute to the eventual, relatively peaceful, change?

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