Commentary about international sanctions has been something of a growth industry lately, particularly regarding regimes in the Middle East. Iran has long been a favorite target of such discussion. The uprisings in Arab countries have stimulated additional talk about sanctions, especially most recently in reaction to the Syrian regime's harsh use of force to crack down on protestors.
Political scientists and economists have constructed a sizable literature on sanctions and on why they sometimes work and sometimes don't work. Some of the recent advocacy on the subject is consistent with findings in that literature, and some of it is not. But reading of much of the commentary raises an even more basic question: what do we hope to accomplish through sanctions? What is our objective in imposing them on any particular country?
One possible objective is to influence a regime. We punish a government that is doing something we don't like, as a way of providing incentive for that government to stop its objectionable behavior. This is the purpose that is the subject of most of the literature on sanctions. A second possible objective is to undermine the target regime. By inflicting punishment on the general population or elements whose support is necessary for the regime's survival, we hope to increase the chance the regime will be overthrown. A third possible purpose is to constrain the regime. By impeding the flow of critical materiel or financial resources, we hope to make it more difficult for the target regime to engage in whatever behavior we don't like, even if the regime is not overthrown and it does not change its own objectives and policies. Each of these purposes might be a legitimate objective in imposing sanctions, but they are quite different from one another.
What ought to be the first step in any recommendation about sanctions is to specify exactly what is the objective we hope to accomplish. One reason for doing so is the same reason to be clear about objectives with any other kind of policy initiative: to be able to assess whether the accomplishment of the objective is worth whatever costs and risks are involved, and even more fundamentally to assess whether accomplishing the objective would advance U.S. interests at all. Another reason when sanctions are involved is that the conditions making for success or failure may be different depending on what the objective is. Particular patterns of power and privilege in the target country that may make it easier to manipulate incentives of the top decision-makers, for example, are apt to be different from the patterns that would increase the possibility that a suffering populace would overthrow the regime. A third reason is that the particular type of sanctions that would work best differs from one objective to another. Sanctions intended to constrain a country's ability to build nuclear weapons, for example, should be substantially different from ones intended to accomplish other purposes. A fourth reason is that our other policies and actions to accompany the sanctions should be designed differently to accomplish different purposes. If we want to influence the regime's policies it is essential to provide a relatively attractive avenue as an alternative to the punishment it receives for persisting in current policies. If our objective is instead to overthrow the regime, we might not want to do that.
Nonetheless, much of the commentary touting the importance of sanctions against a given country makes no effort to specify what the objective is. For example, a recent commentary by Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy on sanctioning Iran goes into great economic detail and is chock full of numbers about subsidies, oil prices and the like in making a case that Iran is vulnerable and the West ought to go full steam ahead in sanctioning it. The piece never specifies, however, whether the objective is to influence the regime's decisions, to increase the chance the regime will fall, or to constrain directly what it can do, regarding nuclear weapons or anything else. Clawson has written a lot about Iran and if challenged could probably point to something else that would identify what he most wants to achieve regarding that country. But it is impossible to assess the validity of what he says about vulnerability and sanctions unless that discussion is coupled with a statement of what the sanctions are supposed to achieve. An example of a pro-sanctions commentary about Syria that is similarly devoid of any clear statement of objectives is one by Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Far too much of what is said about sanctions, once getting above the level of economic details, amounts to saying “regime X bad—must pressure it.” Another purpose one could say that sanctions are serving is to produce a satisfying feeling in the tummy of people who would like to do bad things to regimes that they consider bad. But that is not a legitimate purpose as far as national policy is concerned. Another related purpose, served especially for members of Congress, is to permit posturing as a way of catering to the preferences of those seeking that satisfying feeling in the tummy.