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Sanctions - Do They Help or Hurt? - 2001-09-19

The United States and the international community have often turned to economic sanctions to punish countries for unacceptable behavior, and there has been an ongoing debate over whether sanctions are an effective way to get governments to change their behavior. There is also a question of whether sanctions may serve to spur some people to take violent actions.

The United States already has unilateral economic sanctions against about 60 countries, including several in the Middle East and South Asia where Muslim fundamentalism has strong roots. Some observers suggest those sanctions may have helped rally support for anti-American groups such as the organization led by Osama bin Laden. They say new sanctions could provide further incentive for impoverished, disenchanted radicals to join such groups.

Robert Oakley was U.S. ambassador in Pakistan from 1988 to 1991. He says sanctions imposed on different countries have varying levels of success. For example, Mr. Oakley says U.S. sanctions against Iraq have been largely counterproductive in encouraging changes in Baghdad, while sanctions against Libya have been more successful.

"Sanctions action we took on Pakistan in 1990 I think have turned out to be a net minus, a big net minus because they were taken on the grounds of non-proliferation and had the unintended effect of accelerating Pakistan's turn to ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads rather than conventional weapons," said Mr. Oakley. "And they helped engender a great deal of anti-U.S. sentiment and encouraged the development of radical pro-Islamic sentiment."

Ambassador Oakley, now a visiting fellow at the National Defense University in Washington, says it should have been clear from the outset that sanctions would not change the government in Afghanistan. He notes that British occupation in the 19th century and Russian occupation in the 20th century were not able to bring about such changes in Afghanistan.

Pakistan has been sanctioned because of its nuclear weapons program and Afghanistan has been sanctioned for refusing to turn over Osama bin Laden for his alleged involvement in past terrorist incidents.

Eric Melby, a senior fellow at the Forum for International Policy in Washington, thinks international sanctions against Afghanistan have been more effective than U.S. sanctions aimed at Pakistan. "As far as Afghanistan is concerned, there are U.N. sanctions, and I think that those are probably relatively effective in the sense that hardly anyone wants to trade and do business with Afghanistan," said Mr. Melby. "In the case of Pakistan, to my knowledge, there are only unilateral U.S. sanctions. These are sanctions that we imposed after Pakistan tested a nuclear bomb a few years ago. Those are specifically designed to prevent transfer of high technology that could be used in the Pakistan nuclear weapons program."

Mr. Melby, who has worked on export control issues and U.S. economic policy at the State Department and the National Security Council in the 1980s and 1990s, says he can not point to a single country, with the possible exception of South Africa, where unilateral U.S. sanctions have been effective in prompting changes.

"You can look around the world where we have unilateral sanctions, often imposed by Congress I think out of a feeling of, well, we've got to do something," Mr. Melby. "There's nothing we can think of doing. It looks good for domestic constituencies to impose unilateral sanctions, so we go ahead and do it. But given the open integrated nature of the global trading system, if one country is imposing sanctions alone, there are always other countries who are prepared to trade with that country which means that it is basically symbolic."

Ambassador Oakley says sanctions can be counterproductive and sometimes help to foster anger against the United States. He notes the alleged terrorist network of Osama Bin Laden currently is believed to number in the hundreds of people. "But one has to be careful," he said. "If you do it the wrong way, not just by using sanctions but by using military activity as well as sanctions, you may cause it to spread. In other words, you could make him into an even bigger hero. He's a popular hero, but that doesn't mean he has a large organization. Actually, his operation is fairly loose. It's sort of a collection of different organizations. But you could cause it to expand and increase if you go about things the wrong way."

Some observers say Osama bin Laden's support could grow dramatically if the United States carries out a military campaign against him or his Taleban hosts in Afghanistan, where he is believed to be hiding.