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February 8, 2012

This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.

Boston Review:

Come July, Iran’s oil will no longer flow to Europe, thanks to an EU embargo announced on January 23. That same day the United States approved sanctions on the country’s third largest bank, Bank Tejarat, which the Treasury Department says “has directly facilitated Iran’s illicit nuclear efforts.” Twenty-two other Iranian banks face U.S. sanctions.

The official objective of the sanctions is to compel Iran to negotiate with the West toward the implementation of existing UN Security Council resolutions calling for Iran to suspend its nuclear enrichment program. Unofficially, there are hints that the sanctions are aimed at collapsing the Iranian regime and bringing about democratic change.

Supporters of the policy assume that there is a positive relationship between broad economic sanctions and democratization. The policymakers responsible for these measures either are ignorant of or are simply ignoring the empirical evidence: broad sanctions—total financial and trade embargoes—do not have a good track record of changing target countries’ policies or of pushing them toward democracy.

Tool of Failure
Some scholars have found in sanctions limited success. A widely cited study by Gary Clyde Hufbauer, Jeffrey J. Schott, and Kimberly Ann Elliot holds that of 116 cases of sanctions since 1914, only 34 percent have been successful.1 Scrutiny of those cases, however, suggests an even lower rate. Security expert Robert Pape argues that only five of the 40 reported successes were correctly designated; the majority was settled by the threat or use of military force rather than by sanctions, as the study had not adequately controlled for military intervention. Pape notes that economic sanctions “are often a prelude to using force, not an alternative to using force.”2 Indeed, other studies have shown that broad economic sanctions actually increase the likelihood of military conflict.3

A more recent study by Cliff Morgan, Navin Bapat, and Valentin Krustev analyzes 888 cases of threatened and imposed sanctions from 1971 to 2000. They report an optimistic 39.5 percent success rate when sanctions are imposed unilaterally and a 54.8 percent success rate when imposed multilaterally.

However, the study covers a diverse spectrum, from limited sanctions to total embargoes. Limited economic sanctions are distinct from total embargoes in that they prohibit trade in particular products or sectors and limit access to imports or export capabilities without obstructing a majority of the target’s economic outlets. The data, collected in the Threat and Imposition of Sanctions (TIES) database, show that total embargoes are far less likely to succeed than limited sanctions.

The TIES database identifies 365 cases of partial economic embargoes, 138 implemented by the United States. Surprisingly only four of the U.S.-imposed sanctions, less than 3 percent, are designated as having achieved full acquiescence to U.S. demands. These include minor economic sanctions against Venezuela to improve environmental practices, and against South Korea, India, and the European Union to induce changes in trade policy.4

States that endured broad economic sanctions complied even less frequently with demands. The TIES database identifies 33 cases of total embargoes against 23 states, 12 of which were initiated by the United States. Of these twelve, TIES categorizes three as fully successful, but a closer look proves otherwise.5

The first case involves sanctions against Panama in 1987, intended to destabilize the regime of Manuel Noriega. After two years, the embargo had devastated the fragile economy but done little to undermine the private wealth of the leadership, whose ties to the drug trade guaranteed its survival. The population endured severe oppression, and deteriorating economic conditions continued until the U.S. military invaded and captured Noriega in 1989.6

The second case is the 1991–1994 embargo of Haiti, again intended to destabilize the regime. TIES calls this a success, but the sanctions that ravaged the economy were not as persuasive as the imminent threat of a UN-approved military invasion, the factor that finally coerced the military government of Lieutenant General Raul Cédras to flee.7

The third case curiously suggests that the U.S.-imposed embargo on Iran from 1989 to 1998 produced full acquiescence, clearly belied by the current state of Iran-U.S. relations.

Sanctions and Democratization: Four Cases

While broad economic sanctions rarely achieve their goals, especially with respect to regime change, the question remains whether they aid in democratization. Unquestionably, they aren’t necessary: of 35 authoritarian states that successfully transitioned to democracy since 1955, only one—South Africa—did so under broad economic sanctions.8

Even in the South African case, it is not clear whether sanctions helped the transition to democracy or if they actually prolonged apartheid. Economist Mats Lundahl suggests that sanctions against the industrial sector contributed to the longevity of the agrarian-based apartheid regime. The trade, investment, and oil boycotts were harsher on industry, thus inadvertently advancing the agricultural sector by strengthening its grasp on the unskilled labor market. Lundahl argues that if industrial capitalism had been allowed to flourish, a labor market shift to the industrial sector would have organically accelerated the end of apartheid, a system that relied on the availability of large masses of cheap unskilled labor and suppressed the emergence of a numerically strong skilled labor force.9 Thus, even the most widely cited case of sanctions’ success is, at best, debatable.

Out of the other 34 states that democratized, 20 had limited economic sanctions imposed on them.10 Although limited sanctions appear to have a higher correlation with success, a closer look at the circumstances reveals that in many of these cases, sanctions did not directly cause the transition to democracy. Four examples follow, but there are similar stories in Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Indonesia, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Poland, Portugal, Taiwan, Thailand, and Ukraine.

The first documented case of a sanction imposed by the United States to restore democracy came in 1975. The U.S. arms embargo on Chile lasted until 1989, yet Washington simultaneously provided economic support to the military junta. The sanctions were neither broad nor strictly applied, and stellar economic growth under General Augusto Pinochet reduced the impact the sanctions might have had, leading to overconfidence that would be his ruin. In 1980 Pinochet combined his efforts to appease the mounting opposition and consolidate his power by holding a plebiscite that revised the constitution, officially secured his presidency, and provided for a public referendum in 1988 to determine his reelection. To his surprise, he lost the referendum, and the country began the return to democracy in 1990.

Authoritarian states use external sanctions to cement their hold on power, regardless of how severe the economic costs are.

South Korea is another economically strong country that did not suffer—or change—due to sanctions. The limited sanctions intended to change South Korea’s trade practices were unable to penetrate the robust economy of the 1970–80s or have a significant impact on the government. It was the torture and killing of a student protestor, along with mounting agitation in the 1980s, that triggered the Democracy Movement in 1987.11 Notably, neither the Carter nor the Reagan administrations applied sanctions to improve the human rights situation under the South Korean dictatorship.

Sanctions in Uruguay were similarly ineffective. In 1984 a general strike ended seventeen years of suppressed civil liberties that years of U.S. sanctions could not. Limited sanctions were imposed from 1976–1981 for human rights violations, but torture remained rampant until democratic elections restored civilian rule in 1985.12 The economy suffered more from the decade of military rule than from the loosely applied sanctions.

Finally, the 1989 revolution in Romania was ignited when civil and political unrest between Communist Party members turned the protest of Timișoara into a popular revolt, leading to the swift overthrow and execution of Nicolae Ceaușescu. The TIES database documents twelve cases of sanctions against Romania from 1977 to 2001, including a one-year economic embargo imposed by the United States in 1980.13 The limited economic sanctions leading up to the revolution succeeded in disrupting vital trade, but they could not break the regime. The political protests facing the repressive new regime suggest a ground-up impetus for democracy, rather than a compliance with sanction pressures. Since causality remains unclear, these sanctions can neither be credited for the transition to democracy nor treated as an obstacle to it.14 …

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Armed Forces Journal:

I spent last year in Afghanistan, visiting and talking with U.S. troops and their Afghan partners. My duties with the Army’s Rapid Equipping Force took me into every significant area where our soldiers engage the enemy. Over the course of 12 months, I covered more than 9,000 miles and talked, traveled and patrolled with troops in Kandahar, Kunar, Ghazni, Khost, Paktika, Kunduz, Balkh, Nangarhar and other provinces.

What I saw bore no resemblance to rosy official statements by U.S. military leaders about conditions on the ground…

Read it all.


The Salem witch trials occurred in colonial Massachusetts between 1692 and 1693. More than 200 people were accused of practicing witchcraft—the Devil’s magic—and 20 were executed. Eventually, the colony admitted the trials were a mistake and compensated the families of those convicted. Since then, the story of the trials has become synonymous with paranoia and injustice, and it continues to beguile the popular imagination more than 300 years later.

Salem Struggling

Several centuries ago, many practicing Christians, and those of other religions, had a strong belief that the Devil could give certain people known as witches the power to harm others in return for their loyalty. A “witchcraft craze” rippled through Europe from the 1300s to the end of the 1600s. Tens of thousands of supposed witches—mostly women—were executed. Though the Salem trials came on just as the European craze was winding down, local circumstances explain their onset.

In 1689, English rulers William and Mary started a war with France in the American colonies. Known as King William’s War to colonists, it ravaged regions of upstate New York, Nova Scotia and Quebec, sending refugees into the county of Essex and, specifically, Salem Village in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. (Salem Village is present-day Danvers, Massachusetts; colonial Salem Town became what’s now Salem.)

The displaced people created a strain on Salem’s resources. This aggravated the existing rivalry between families with ties to the wealth of the port of Salem and those who still depended on agriculture. Controversy also brewed over Reverend Samuel Parris, who became Salem Village’s first ordained minister in 1689, and was disliked because of his rigid ways and greedy nature. The Puritan villagers believed all the quarreling was the work of the Devil.

In January of 1692, Reverend Parris’ daughter Elizabeth, age 9, and niece Abigail Williams, age 11, started having “fits.” They screamed, threw things, uttered peculiar sounds and contorted themselves into strange positions, and a local doctor blamed the supernatural. Another girl, Ann Putnam, age 11, experienced similar episodes. On February 29, under pressure from magistrates Jonathan Corwin and John Hathorne, the girls blamed three women for afflicting them: Tituba, the Parris’ Caribbean slave; Sarah Good, a homeless beggar; and Sarah Osborne, an elderly impoverished woman.

Witch Hunt

All three women were brought before the local magistrates and interrogated for several days, starting on March 1, 1692. Osborne claimed innocence, as did Good. But Tituba confessed, “The Devil came to me and bid me serve him.” She described elaborate images of black dogs, red cats, yellow birds and a “black man” who wanted her to sign his book. She admitted that she signed the book and said there were several other witches looking to destroy the Puritans. All three women were put in jail.

With the seed of paranoia planted, a stream of accusations followed for the next few months. Charges against Martha Corey, a loyal member of the Church in Salem Village, greatly concerned the community; if she could be a witch, then anyone could. Magistrates even questioned Sarah Good’s 4-year-old daughter, Dorothy, and her timid answers were construed as a confession. The questioning got more serious in April when Deputy Governor Thomas Danforth and his assistants attended the hearings. Dozens of people from Salem and other Massachusetts villages were brought in for questioning.

On May 27, 1692, Governor William Phipps ordered the establishment of a Special Court of Oyer (to hear) and Terminer (to decide) for Suffolk, Essex and Middlesex counties. The first case brought to the special court was Bridget Bishop, an older woman known for her gossipy habits and promiscuity. When asked if she committed witchcraft, Bishop responded, “I am as innocent as the child unborn.” The defense must not have been convincing, because she was found guilty and, on June 10, became the first person hanged on what was later called Gallows Hill…

Read it all.

Half Time In America

February 8, 2012

This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.

The Show Must Go On!

February 8, 2012

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