Hawks and doves may be deeply divided on the use of military force against Iraq, but there is one area on which they may have come to agree: Trade sanctions don't work. The hawks believe that sanctions will never dislodge a determined dictator like Saddam Hussein, while doves now feel that the human cost of sanctions may be too great. Consequently, there needs to be a serious rethinking of sanctions policy.
Trade sanctions have been the offensive line of American diplomacy since at least the 1930s, when they were unsuccessfully used against Japan. They allow diplomats to show their displeasure toward aggressor nations in a way more emphatic than simply withdrawing an ambassador, but without committing the military. That is why the State Department likes them so much. They add an element of force to diplomacy short of armed conflict.
Unfortunately, there is virtually no evidence that sanctions have ever worked. There are few items of international commerce of which the United States has a monopoly. Hence, unilateral sanctions are doomed from the start. Target countries simply buy what they need elsewhere. The only losers are American businesses, which lose sales to foreign competitors.
Multilateral sanctions have a better chance of success, but they are hard to maintain. Eventually, they break down, especially when the target country has significant deposits of tradable commodities, such as gold, diamonds or oil. Such things are easily sold on international markets and difficult to trace. There are always those willing to buy sanctioned goods in return for big profits, and countries willing to give them sanctuary.
In the case of Iraq, the nation has ample reserves of petroleum and does not lack for methods of selling it on the world market, despite U.N. sanctions. Indeed, much of the oil Iraq sells is done so legally under a U.N. program that allows limited amounts of oil to be sold to purchase food and medicine. Since 1997, when the program began, and 2001, Iraq received $51 billion from legal oil sales, according to a U.S. General Accounting Office report. However, the report also notes that Iraq obtained another $6.6 billion during this period through smuggling and illegal surcharges.
Despite increased efforts by the United States and the United Nations to limit illegal oil sales, they appear to be increasing. Last month, The Wall Street Journal quoted a senior White House official as saying Iraq is getting $3 billion per year from them. As time has gone by, the process has become well organized via an illicit pipeline to Syria, and trucks and railroad tankers across the borders with Jordan and Turkey.
Bruce Bartlett is a former senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis of Dallas, Texas. Bartlett is a prolific author, having published over 900 articles in national publications, and prominent magazines and published four books, including Reaganomics: Supply-Side Economics in Action.
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