t is doubtful that sanctions alone will cause regime-change in Syria. Economic deprivation and reduced government spending does not usually lead to regime-change. It is hard to think of a Middle Eastern government that has been brought down by sanctions. Some of the countries that have faced sanctions for decades are Iran, Iraq, Libya, and Sudan. Of course Gaza has faced severe sanctions in an effort to bring down the Hamas government with very little success. What sanctions do very effectively is make people poor and hungry. Governments are good at passing along the pain. In Gaza there is 80% unemployment and widespread malnutrition but no regime change. The UN estimates that sanctions on Iraq killed over 300,000 Iraqis in the 1990s. Starving Syrians is not the intention of US and European policy makers who imposed the sanctions. They continue to insist that Assad will step down due to sanctions. But what Arab leader has ever stepped down as a result of having his country sanctioned? As Albert Einstein said, “Insanity is doing the same thing, over and over again, but expecting different results.”
The good policy makers in Western capitals are not insane, so what are they up to?
- Are they simply imposing sanctions because it is a politically inexpensive way to do something? After all, military intervention, which is the tested method to bring about regime change, is unthinkable today.
- Could some policy makers be hoping to ratchet up the humanitarian disaster in Syria in order to create an “intervention friendly environment” down the road? This seems far fetched but the humanitarian argument was one of the more persuasive rationals for intervening in Iraq. The more extreme the disaster, the more extreme solutions people are willing to entertain.
The problem with sanctions is that they destroy national institutions, decimate the middle class, and degrade society. We saw this in Iraq. The results are not pretty. They make building democracy all the more difficult when the offending regime is finally overturned. The only thing we know about democracy promotion with any certainty is that its chances of success rise exponentially with greater per capita GDP. A long sanctions regime can only hurt democracy promotion. We all know about the magic of the middle class. It is hard to do anything constructive in a country without one.