Habit-Forming Sanctions

Economic sanctions are a legitimate tool of foreign policy. They are sometimes the only reasonable alternative to military force. In cases like Serbia and Iraq, sanctions have served international goals of peacemaking and controlling weapons of mass destruction.

But sanctions frequently have unintended side effects, which sometimes overwhelm intended goals. This is particularly true of sanctions applied unilaterally by one country - or even one state or city.

The United States, with its economic clout, its yen to defend human rights, and its active ethnic politics, is king of the sanctioneers. But consider a sampling of the record:

* Sanctions against one favorite target, Iran, have soured relations with European and other allies who do business there. The sanctions also work against a needed diplomatic opening between the US and Iran.

* Sanctions against Cuba, like the Helms-Burton law, are viewed abroad as an attempt to impose US law on other nations. They collide with the US's own free-trade policies.

* Sanctions voted locally, by entities ranging from the state of Massachusetts to the city of Berkeley, Calif., can tangle US foreign policy and add to dismay over US capriciousness.

* Finally, the supposed beneficiaries of sanctions, like persecuted religious minorities abroad, may find their situations worsened if sanctions spark new resentment.

The upshot? Use sanctions mainly in concert with other nations and always after careful consideration of consequences, never as a habit.

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