As the streets of Libya run with blood, and Libyan resistance fighters charge at Qaddafi’s troops with swords, President Obama and the international community have slipped on the comfortable cardigan sweater of sanctions. The President has ordered a regime of sanctions that will “target the Gaddafi government, while protecting the assets that belong to the people of Libya.” He hopes European countries, which have more economic leverage with Libya, will apply their own sanctions this week.
Every severe international crisis passes through the sanctions stage before serious action is contemplated, so this was inevitable. Is there any evidence that sanctions really make a difference, especially in a “hot” civil war? They don’t seem to have produced much of an effect in places like North Korea, even after decades of application. Does anyone think Qaddafi will send his army of brutal imported mercenaries home, because the U.N. traffic cop pulls him over and writes a citation with a stiff fine attached?
Some of the worst dictators in the world have amassed billion-dollar fortunes beneath the “crushing weight” of sanctions. Saddam Hussein bribed his “jailors”, stuffed his pillows under the blanket, and slipped out of his “Oil for Food” cell to build palaces. The Castro and Kim families accumulated two of the most extravagant fortunes in the world, while their people suffered under sanctions.
One reason sanctions enrich a regime is that they limit the amount of commerce flowing into a national economy, which makes the dictator’s control over what remains even more valuable. Someone is always willing to violate the sanctions, and the Maximum Leader gets a nice piece of the action for opening the back door to an isolated market. Even humanitarian exceptions for relief supplies provide opportunities for plunder.
The Obama Administration says it is carefully designing American sanctions to target the Qaddafi family and its loyalists, rather than the people. That’s a ridiculous notion. Money is infinitely fluid. Dictators can always find ways to suck the blood of their captive nations. Qaddafi went into the current crisis with billions salted away in countries around the world. It’s not that seizing his assets in America or Europe won’t hurt, but he’s got so much cash, hidden under so many mattresses, that no conceivable sanctions regime will end with him living in District 9 and eating cat food with the Prawn.
The economic future of a dictator holds either power or luxury, as long as he holds onto his life. In theory, tough sanctions could shake some of his peripheral henchmen loose, as the heart of the regime becomes too weak to pump money to its extremities. In practice, that never seems to make much of a difference.
What would Moammar Qaddafi see in recent history to make him afraid of sanctions? If he hangs onto power, he’ll find ways around them. If he’s deposed, they won’t damage his retirement plans much. He’ll leave Libya because he fears death, not poverty. Sanctions are something the international community does to make itself feel tough, but civilized, like the Old Spice guy. While elected officials pose for photographs with stern expressions on their faces, Qaddafi will look for his destiny in the hard eyes of the rebels surrounding his capital.