The "embargo," from the Spanish word "embargar" (to hinder or restrain) has probably seen its best days as a weapon of coercion.
The undiscriminating punishment of guilty tyrants and innocent people alike has brought the condemnation of Pope John Paul II. In his state of the world address Jan. 10, he called sanctions against Iraq "pitiless." In 1995, he criticized the embargo on Cuba, saying "the people should not be made to suffer."
The idea of an economic stranglehold lacks today what it had during the cold war - an organizing principle with widespread public support. In 1954, the United Nations, on America's recommendation, declared an embargo on North Korea and China. In Europe, a NATO organization called the Coordinating Committee, or CoCom, rode herd on exports of strategic materials and technology to the communist world.
Perhaps the most effective sanctions of the modern era were enforced against South Africa, spurred by almost universal outrage over apartheid and supported even by many in South Africa who suffered from their effects.
But today, multilateral sanctions, like those against Iraq and Burma, are few, and unilateral American sanctions, like those against Iran and Cuba, are many. America levied such retaliation against various countries 61 times between 1993 and 1996 alone.
Possibly the most extreme sanctions are contained in the Helms-Burton law of 1996, not only punishing third countries for dealing with Cuba, but preventing any future president from lifting the ban without congressional approval in advance. The current New Yorker magazine details the election-year pressures that led President Clinton to sign the bill after Fidel Castro's air force shot down two Cuban-American planes.
The UN assembly has condemned the embargo on Cuba. The pope, on his visit to Cuba this week, repeated his opposition, urging America "to change." Iraq's Saddam Hussein, apparently sensing a weakening general support for sanctions, is launching an all-out campaign to have them lifted without having to comply with the UN's weapons-inspection requirements.
Unlike Cuba, representing no significant threat, Iraq represents a real potential threat, at least regionally. But the economic embargo, because of the unselective character of the punishment it delivers, appears to be faced with waning international support in the absence of a rallying standard like the communist "Evil Empire."
* Daniel Schorr is senior news analyst for National Public Radio.