Economic Sanctions = Tools, Not Policy

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney recently said: “What we have seen is that sanctions can put pressure on governments and regimes to change their behavior.” In today’s Washington Post, Glenn Kessler (always a good read) penned an item titled “How effective are sanctions ‘changing behavior’,” analyzing the truthfulness of Carney’s remark.

It is a good read, that is, until I this almost talismanic statement on U.S.-Cuba policy appeared on the page: “U.S. sanctions on Cuba also have not made much of a dent on the Castro brothers’ five decades of rule.”  This intellectual gem is a favorite argument of the anti-embargo proponents.

“We do not have a cookie-cutter approach to policy. China is a world power. . . . Cuba is an embarrassment to the Western Hemisphere,” Secretary of State Madeline Albright (1996).

The thing is, economic sanctions alone have never been a U.S. policy toward any country, they are a tool of U.S. policy that have been around since the founding of the Republic. Economic sanctions can take many forms including tariffs, import duties, import and export quotas, and many more. I do not like them, but, there are many U.S. national security interests at play in the world that sometimes require their use.

As stated in statute, U.S. policy toward Cuba is that we will adopt measures that foster a peaceful transition to democracy. There is a list a steps outlining what the U.S. will do when Cuba does things that we think merit closer relations. And, last time I checked, close to $1 billion in agricultural sales, millions of dollars a year in remittances, and travel by U.S. persons and companies to Cuba do not come close to the economic isolation envisioned by policy makers.

Just as in the case of North Korea, Iran, Sudan, and many others, our policy is somewhat complex and not subject to what former Secretary of State Madeline Albright said many times during her time at Foggy Bottom, “cookie cutter” approaches. With regards to Cuba, if we would enforce U.S. laws, I am confident that the regime would have crumbled long ago. If you want to read some of the laws, here you go:

  1. Cuban Democracy Act of 1992 (CDA);
  2. The Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act of 1996 (LIBERTAD);
  3. The Trading with the Enemy Act (TWEA);
  4. Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA).

With regards to Carney’s comments, the proposed new sanctions on Syria are not going to topple strongman Bashar al-Assad, but, they can put pressure on regime officials who have business and personal contacts with the United States. And, coupled with other robust means, can exact changes in behavior from the Syrian regime.

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