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The Next Quagmire

If trade promotes peace, and it does, then trade sanctions stifle it. That may be simple logic, but it continues to go unnoticed with Washington officials.

The latest nation on the receiving end of economic provocation is Syria. On August 18, Barack Obama froze all Syrian government assets within U.S. jurisdiction and banned American investment in, service trade with, and petroleum imports from Syria. Echoed by officials from other nations, both Obama and Hillary Clinton have called on Bashar al-Assad, president of Syria, to step aside — although they still gave lip service to national sovereignty, saying that “no outside power should impose on [Syria’s] transition.”

To justify that move, Clinton denounced Syrian leaders as contemptuous towards their own people, and she asserted an array of atrocities against peaceful demonstrators, including the murder of thousands of unarmed civilians.

The story is not that simple, however. Verification of the number of deaths is scant, and the “peaceful demonstrations” could better be described as an armed insurrection. In fact, alongside the insurrection, Damascus has witnessed mass pro-government rallies. Syria also happens to be the leading destination for refugees from Iraq, and as recently as 2009 Obama had sought to ease sanctions, on the basis of “mutual interest and mutual respect” according to his press spokesman).

Regardless, al-Assad has dismissed calls for him to step down as meaningless, and trade sanctions will pave the way for military confrontation, not prevent it.

Obama’s latest sanctions are an amplification of George W. Bush’s under the 2003 Syria Accountability Act. Congress introduced that legislation against Syria for, you guessed it, support for terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, and, among other things, failure to support American activities in Iraq. Obviously, Syria is a “threat to U.S. national security interests.”

Paranoia aside, the track record of trade sanctions does not support their existence. Just take a look at the list of embargoed nations, including Iran, Cuba, North Korea, and Zimbabwe. If anything, sanctions have offered a scapegoat for national officials and galvanized loyalists, who could better demonize the disengaged populations. Most important, sanctions have not led the officials of targeted nations to back down.

Worse, sanctions worsen the plight of the poor, scarcely different from open war. 1990s Iraq provides just one compelling example. Impact estimates for deaths for that period, due to sanctions-induced contaminated living conditions and a lack of access to medicines, go as high as 500,000, as John Pilger has documented.

Madeleine Albright, U.S. ambassador to the UN at the time, even acknowledged that impact, when she said, “This is a very hard choice, but we think the price is worth it.”Worth it for what? A decade of sanctions only led into the second Gulf War.

U.S. politicians also appear to forget that trade is mutually beneficial, so sanctions are mutually harmful. Blocking Syrian petroleum and business ventures is going to hurt both Syrian and American economic prospects. Moreover, the application of freezes on foreign-owned assets is so vague that it will dissuade further investment here.

The selectivity of sanctions is another riddle that further undermines their credibility. Syria mustn’t be lending the United States enough money, because the Chinese government has a record of violent tactics that dwarfs that of Syria. They own $1.2 trillion of the U.S. debt and face no sanctions. They even just received a lecture from Joe Biden on the need for open trade:

“I believe history has shown … that in the long run, greater openness is a source of stability and a sign of strength, that prosperity peaks when governments foster both free enterprise and free exchange of ideas, that liberty unlocks a people’s full potential. And in its absence, unrest festers.”

That’s right, Mr. Biden; the absence of trade does allow unrest to fester, just as it will in Syria. There may not be easy answers to the regrettable political conflicts in Syria, but isolation from the rest of the world is not going to help. Even if unintentionally, U.S. officials are setting the stage for military engagement, as they did with Iraq and recently with Libya. 

Fergus Hodgson is director of fiscal policy studies with the John Locke Foundation and a policy advisor with The Future of Freedom Foundation (www.fff.org).

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