In the weeks since Israel's lethally bungled raid on a boatload of protesters trying to bring humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip, the Jewish state has come under tremendous pressure to lift its punishing blockade of the Palestinian enclave. Though they've recently announced a partial easing of restrictions on imports, Israel argues it must continue to isolate Gaza to keep Hamas from smuggling in weapons and ultimately drive them out of power. In other words, Palestinian civilians must suffer economic hardship so that Israeli civilians are no longer menaced by rockets.
That's a hard-hearted, but plausible- sounding, argument. The trouble is, research show that historically, using economic sanctions to force a rogue regime to change its ways rarely works.
Researchers at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, recently released the third edition of their highly regarded book-length study on economic sanctions, examining more than 170 cases over the last century. Their main conclusion: Sanctions have accomplished their proclaimed objective in only about a third of all cases — and most of those involved goals far more modest than regime change. "I'd say Israel's chances of success are very low," says Gary Hufbauer, one of the study's authors.
The authors of a 2000 study on sanctions imposed in the 1990s found a similar 1-in-3 success rate.
What's more, this kind of collective punishment often strengthens the targeted regime, rather than weakening it.
"Politically, [the] goal is to reduce the support for sanctioned leaders of their own peoples. This may indeed happen in exceptional cases. But in fact the more general reaction is one of 'rallying around the flag,' whereby resisting outside pressure is seen as a patriotic duty", writes Ramesh Thakur, vice-rector of Tokyo's United Nations University.
Many economic sanctions stop short of a full-scale trade embargo. But Israel's ability — with Egypt's support — to cut off virtually all foreign trade with Gaza makes its blockade most comparable to thoroughgoing international efforts to isolate Slobodan Milosevic's Yugoslavia and Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Neither case offers an encouraging precedent.
The sanctions imposed on Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, aimed at getting Belgrade to stop supporting the war effort of their Serbian confreres in neighboring Bosnia, drove the Yugoslav economy into freefall. Industrial output was halved, wages plummeted and unemployment skyrocketed. Basic foods and even medical supplies became scarce and expensive. But according to an American University study, "Milosevic used the economic sanctions both as a glue for defiant nationalist sentiment and to strengthen his hold on power." Writing in George Mason University's International Journal of Peace Studies, researcher Milica Delevic noted: "Firmly in control of the media, the Yugoslav officials managed to blame the sanctions on the world's hatred for the Serbs. ...the sanctions provided a convenient excuse for whatever was wrong in the country."
Eventually, Milosevic did bring some pressure to bear on his Bosnian allies, but not enough to make them stop fighting. "Sanctions, helped to a great extent by pre-existing economic difficulties and macroeconomic mismanagement ... [helped] make Serbian President Milosevic more cooperative, but were of no decisive importance for stopping the war in Bosnia," Delevic concluded. That required NATO bombers.
The story of the sanctions imposed on Iraq after its 1991 invasion of Kuwait is similar. The embargo dealt a heavy blow to ordinary Iraqis, crippling the economy and spawning shortages of food and medicines. The sanctions were a major contributing factor to the doubling of Iraq's infant mortality rate, according to UNICEF. But Saddam made sure his supporters, and especially the military, got everything they needed. As a result, another American University study found, "sanctions have strengthened his resolve, while weakening his opposition. Under the sanctions, Saddam has rebuilt his army from the shattered wreck left in 1991." Once again, it took a full-scale military invasion to drive him from power.
There are success stories. The Peterson Institute researchers credit sanctions with helping coax Libya into handing over suspects in the Lockerbie airplane bombing. Perhaps most famously, economic pressure on South Africa helped end apartheid. But Cuba's Communist Party is still in charge after weathering nearly 50 years of an American economic embargo. North Korea's leadership seems similarly unfazed by years of international economic sanctions.
In Gaza, the blockade hasn't forced Hamas to hand over kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, one of Israel's demands. Nor does it seem to be weakening Hamas' grip on power. In the past year, Hamas militants have jailed and killed its critics on the left and right. "A thriving political culture has been culled to a one-faction state," reported The Economist recently.
One of the main reasons sanctions fail is that they are almost impossible to make airtight. From Africa to Eastern Europe, neighboring countries always have an incentive to keep doing business with the targeted country. In Gaza, despite Egypt and Israel's efforts, Palestinians have dug an extensive network of smuggling tunnels through which huge amounts of goods are brought in. Hamas profitably taxes that traffic.
As Thakur points out, as a result of sanctions "leaders are often enriched and strengthened on the backs of their impoverished and oppressed peoples."
Those tunnels also serve as a conduit for weapons. Hamas had no shortage of rockets to fire at Israel in their 2009 war, and there's no reason to think they have any fewer on hand now.
This week, the Israeli government declared it would ease the blockade somewhat, allowing more goods in overland while still banning incoming ships. They seem to have realized that while history shows there's a chance a full-scale economic embargo will help them tame Hamas, the odds are badly against it.
With reporting by Nicole Pasulka