I can never forget that callous, cold, and counter-productive answer from former secretary of state Madeleine Albright when she was asked about the deaths of half-a-million Iraqi children as a result of sanctions: “We think the price is worth it.”
The sanctions were designed to weaken Saddam Hussein’s regime—they did not. Instead, we had Secretary Albright in a CBS interview undermining every fiber of the moral authority of the United States. That mistake cannot be repeated again.
Sanctions against the population of Gaza, collective punishment for voting for the political wing of a terrorist movement, have not led to mass street protests against Hamas or weakening of its control over Gaza. The Arab uprisings were an ideal moment for Gazans to rise up against Islamist rule by Hamas and call for Western support—they did not. Hamas has delayed holding elections in Gaza. There is yet to be mass outcry.
In Syria, in the large cities of Damascus, Aleppo, and elsewhere, the country’s president remains popular. Sanctions, however productive, will not dislodge this popularity. A population accustomed to blaming outsiders will fault Israel, the United States, and the European Union for punishing them. In time, anti-American sentiment will rise further as the regime demands “sacrifices for the motherland” from its people. Any opposition to such rallying cries will be labeled as khiyanah, or betrayal. Democracy activists will be cast as jasoos, or spies. These two Arabic words are not only deeply derogatory, but are exceptionally effective in creating outcasts of the most noble of citizens.
But it’s not only about the Syrian regime’s staying power. Despite claims to the contrary, sanctions are already beginning to impact ordinary lives. A recent NPR.org article described the sanctions’ effects:
Western sanctions are designed to target the government and pressure President Bashar Assad, but every Syrian is grappling with the punishment. For the poor, eggs and meat are now out of reach. For the well-to-do, international banks have stopped processing personal credit cards. For merchants, there is a collapse in demand, says Nabil Sukkar, a former World Bank official who runs an independent research center in Damascus. “There is tremendous depression because there is still no light at the end of the tunnel,” he says. “They don’t know where the economy is heading.”
As the United States presses Turkey and other nations to impose further sanctions on Syria, it is worth reminding ourselves of this dictum for change, eloquently expressed by John Maynard Keynes:
It is not sufficient that the state of affairs which we seek to promote should be better than the state of affairs which preceded it; it must be sufficiently better to make up for the evils of the transition.
I have written before here and here and here about why we cannot necessarily expect that Syria without Assad would be better. It is now time to ask: do we still think that price is worth it? We can agree with Albright or Keynes. I am with Keynes.
(Meanwhile, if you want a glimpse into the utter chaos that wishes to govern Syria in the event of Assad falling, please see this introduction on Foreign Policy. Unlike in Egypt, Tunisia, or Libya, Syria’s opposition movement does not inspire confidence.)