It’s true that in history, economic sanctions have generally been a blunt instrument swung at whole countries. The US cut off trade with Japan in 1940, for instance, to try to curb its belligerence. (Didn’t work.) That approach continued through much of the modern era of United Nations-directed economic sanctions. In 1990, the UN Security Council imposed sweeping trade cutoffs on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The UN approved blanket sanctions against Haiti and Yugoslavia later that decade.
But starting in the mid-’90s, diplomats began talking openly about “smart sanctions” aimed more narrowly at individuals. That’s because the more blunt instrument can hurt whole populations and make life miserable for innocent civilians. Take Iraq, where UN sanctions cut the nation’s economic activity in half. This created a humanitarian crisis, which Mr. Hussein blamed on the US.