SOMETIMES economic sanctions are the right medicine; sometimes they are exactly the wrong prescription. As the world gears up for yet another dose, this time for Serbia, it is useful to review the whens and when nots of sanctions.
Economic sanctions do two things: They punish people for the sins of their leaders, and, if imposed long enough, they constrain the long-term options of the leaders. But they cannot force a country to change direction. If a leader is highly responsive to popular pressure or if the stakes are low, then sanctions stand a chance of achieving the ultimate goal of changing the country's policies. If a leader could not care less, or if the stakes are very high, don't rely on sanctions.
Consider the three most prominent ongoing examples: Iraq, Haiti, and now Serbia.
Soon after Saddam Hussein's ill-fated invasion of Kuwait, the United Nations slapped Iraq with the most complete set of economic sanctions ever attempted. By virtually every measure (save one), the sanctions were a smashing success. There was near-unanimous participation, virtually all trade with Iraq stopped, a once-thriving economy ground to a halt - and Saddam stubbornly refused to give up one inch of Kuwaiti territory.
In retrospect, it should not surprise that sanctions failed to dislodge Iraqi forces. Saddam was and is a dictator. Sanctions hurt most the things he cared least about. While sanctions remain a useful tool in constraining the future growth of the Iraqi war machine, their ability to change policy is limited.
THIS argument applies with even greater force to Haiti. Soon after the military sponsored a coup against President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the United States convinced the Organization of American States (OAS) to impose sanctions on Haiti. It does not take the wisdom of Solomon to realize this is a mistake. Haiti already was the poorest country in the hemisphere, and the military leaders have no regard for the welfare of the people. So inflicting sanctions, that is, punishing the people for the sins of th e leaders, is at once both ineffective and cruel.
Recent events show that the Haitian people are more logical than administration policymakers. Faced with a hopeless situation that has become that much more desperate, they are fleeing the country in droves. In some ways, the Haitian exodus has become a reverse sanction on the US. If we can just figure out a way to get the right (or wrong) administration officials to feel the pain, then these sanctions may be effective. How about setting up temporary housing in Foggy Bottom?
And so we come to Serbia. Ironically, whereas sanctions were ineffective against Iraq and cruelly unjust against Haiti, sanctions make sense against Serbia.
For starters, sanctions will hit the people responsible for the crimes. The violence in former Yugoslavia is ethnic and civil in nature; people against people, townsfolk against townsfolk. The people who would find their well-being wrecked by sanctions are the ones who are wrecking the well-being of their neighbors. Better yet would be a measure that also reached the ethnic Serbs inside Bosnia and Croatia. But such precision is beyond our means. It still helps to touch those who are offering moral and ma terial support to the soldiers now ravaging Bosnia.
Second, sanctions stand a chance of stemming the violence. This is only a dim hope, however, for the roots of the chaos have run deep for many generations. But the current flare-up was sparked by greed. Ethnic Serbs wanted to take as much land as possible from the seceding republics. Greed is a two-edged sword. The desirability of an extra village in Bosnia may pale when measured against the utter ruin of the Serbian economy.
At a minimum, sanctions are a good first step and they should be extended to include all economic activity with Serbia. They are certainly preferable to the policy they replaced - doing nothing. It is not too late for the Bush administration - the same one that wisely recognized the futility of sanctions against Iraq and foolishly ignored the same with Haiti - to get it right now with Serbia.