The time has come to rethink the viability of imposing sanctions on a country or an institution. Does the damage created by these restrictions provide sufficient encouragement that aids in facilitating positive change in the thought process of the leadership of the punished group? Could the penalties levied against countries or institutions actually make the stated objective of the sanctions more difficult to accomplish, while creating unnecessary suffering among the innocent members of the population?
When the United States government desires to influence the behavior of a country that disobeys their commands they often advocate imposing sanctions or a blockade. Unfortunately, the measures pass through Congress with little resistance and receive almost zero scrutiny from the public. Most US citizens feel that placing sanctions on another nation is an effective way to mitigate the risk a country poses to our national security or our global interests. The obsession with sanctions extends outside the political realm as many clubs and associations in the US utilize these tools to penalize and control the behavior of members.
Obviously, sanctions or blockades imposed against a country have a significantly greater impact on the lives of millions of people and dwarf the recent sanctions levied against The Pennsylvania State University in both economic impacts and human suffering. My objective is not to compare the similarities of the sanctions levied on these countries or on the aforementioned university, but to encourage a questioning attitude when considering if sanctions are the proper means for altering behavior in each of these circumstances.
This week the House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a bill to expand the existing sanctions placed on Iran. The sanctions focus on the Iranian energy, shipping, and financial industries. The bill, that passed the House by a ridiculous 421-6 vote, strives to force Iran to abandon their quest for a nuclear weapons program. These sanctions are sold to the public as tough actions that are necessary to hold Iran in check. From The Huffington Post:
The legislation would impose sanctions on anyone who mines uranium with Iran; sells, leases or provides oil tankers to Tehran; or provides insurance to the National Iranian Tanker Co., the state-run shipping line. The bill seeks to undermine Iran’s ability to repatriate revenue from the sale of crude oil.
The bill would penalize anyone who works in Iran’s petroleum, petrochemical or natural gas sector, or helps Tehran’s oil and gas industry by providing goods, services, technology or infrastructure.
A majority of Americans would be surprised to find out that our own intelligence agencies and intelligence sources from around the world have zero evidence that Iran has a nuclear weapons program or is planning to begin such a program.
It is important to understand, regardless of your opinion relating to Iran’s ability to create a nuclear weapon, that sanctions and blockades are an act of war. They may not incite the same emotions as bombs falling from the sky and occupying ground forces, but the effects are sometimes even more debilitating. Not only are they an act of war, but they cause the least responsible to be punished the most severely. As a result, those suffering as a result of the sanctions often shift the blame from the ruling regime and place the public’s criticism on those enforcing the sanctions. This creates a situation where the despotic leadership is actually able to gain favor as a result of external intervention.
We do not need to look any further to find catastrophic suffering resulting from sanctions than those imposed on Iraq between 1990 and 2003. Anthony Gregory wrote an excellent piece in April 2011, which quotes heavily from Invisible War: The United States and the Iraq Sanctions by Joy Gordon (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010),that points out the devastating impact of the crippling sanctions placed on Iraq between the hot conflict in 1990 and the ongoing war that began in 2003. It is estimated that during that time frame at least 500,000 children died from malnutrition and disease that otherwise would have lived. If that’s not enough, Osama bin Laden cited these sanctions as a motive for the September 11, 2012 attacks.
It doesn’t require a history major to determine if the Iraqi sanctions met their stated objective of removing Saddam Hussein from power. They did not. In fact, they actually enhanced his power as they provided the leaders of Iraq an excuse by allowing them to blame the sanctions for all of the suffering the people of Iraq were enduring. Saddam was not an extremely popular leader, the Kurds and Shiites hated him, but the destruction brought on at the hands of foreign enemies galvanized the Iraqi people and helped Saddam Hussein to maintain power for such a long period of time.
Sanctions and penalties are not limited to countries on the other side of the globe. There are examples of their damaging impact right off the coast of the United States. The Cuban embargo began in 1962 with the intention of convincing the communist dictatorship to change their ways and embrace capitalism. Incredibly, 50 years have passed and Cuba is no closer to capitalism today than they were when the trade sanctions were imposed. The embargo has acted as a crutch that allows the communist leadership to blame their failures on the trade embargo put in place by the so-called “free trade” capitalists to the north. If we truly wanted to encourage the Cuban people to reject communism, then we should freely trade with Cuba in order to expose them to the benefits of liberty and free enterprise.
The unprecedented sanctions handed down to Penn State University by NCAA Chairman Mark Emmert impacted the entire Penn State community. In the interest of full disclosure, it is important to state that all of the contributors to this blog graduated from PSU. None of us played for the football team or knew anyone involved with the scandal personally, but like every Penn State graduate or supporter we will forever be tied to the immoral and illogical actions of a handful of administrators.
In the aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal, the sanctions only intensified the negative view of Penn State. I will spare the heinous details of Mr. Sandusky crimes against children in this post. Thankfully, he will spend the rest of his life in jail and we can only hope and that he will eternally pay for the unimaginable pain and suffering he caused his innocent victims.
It goes without saying that sanctions or blockades enforced by governments differ greatly from those in the private sector. Although, it has been educational to experience the consequences of sanctions from the side enduring the restrictions. The sanctions have brought Penn Staters together during a time where many in the community disagreed on a variety of topics from Joe Paterno to the Board of Trustees. Penn State students, faculty, and alumni have been very supportive of those football players that are staying with Penn State and this among other factors has helped the community to come together during a time when there are more questions than answers surrounding the leadership at the University. The sanctions have unified the community, but have greatly reduced the dialouge surrounding the circumstances that allowed this to happen. The issue of child sexual abuse should be at the front of everyones mind, not which team a certain PSU football player is going to transfer.
One of the stated objectives of the sanctions was to change the culture of college football by making an example out of Penn State. Ironically, the NCAA has made college football the focus of this by basically declaring NFL free agency in college football, without the rules. The unintended consequences linked to these sanctions have been far-reaching. It is doubtful that Mark Emmert intended for a former walk-on at USC to lose his scholarship in order to make room for Penn State’s best player to transfer. Wasn’t the goal of the sanctions to shift the focus of college athletics to academics? How does a kid losing his scholarship, thousands of miles removed from where Jerry Sandusky terrorized children, help the healing process of the innocent victims in the situation? How does it help Penn State going forward?
To be clear, I am not comparing the suffering that the people of Iraq, Iran, or Cuba endure with the inconvenience those at Penn State are living through. As a society we need to understand that every decision results in both intended and unintended consequences. Before those in positions of power enact restrictions to attempt to influence a leader’s decision making or change the direction of a cultural phenomenon they need to understand there is no possible way to measure the complete impacts of their edict. The best way to achieve lasting results is by consistently enforcing the rule of law and pointing to those convicted as an example of the consequences of harming others. We need to eliminate the thought process that if we do not strike preemptively domestically and globally, then we expose ourselves to harm. If this continues, we might end up living in a society that approves of killing the immediate family of a man who commits murder, in order to set an example.