Sudan Sanctions and My Neighbor's Cat, by David Henderson

July 21, 2017
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Sudan Sanctions and My Neighbor's Cat, by David Henderson

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.

(Why?)

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