April 15, 2005

Sanctions and the Death of the Wimpy Left

The Caterpillar company, which provides defensively armored bulldozers to Israel, just voted 97 to 3 to continue selling to the IDF (lgf). What interests me is that this is part of a longstanding, if largely unsuccessful, divestment push among the hard left. The hard left used to (and still does, at times) criticize sanctions as inhumane or even murderous. For example, Ward Churchill blames the UN sanctions for a half-million Iraqi deaths (and cites Albright's disastrous quote that it is 'worth it'). This is nothing new. They also like to mention the Cuban embargo as an example of a humanitarian disaster, or even the moral equivalent of murder.

I could accept this basic formulation, if you categorize it as something to the effect of 'sanctions punish innocent people for the crimes of their repressive governments, deprive them of access to safe, cheap US-made goods that could often save lives.' I think it's a fair argument to make that sanctions, whether UN or US, clearly worsen the quality of life for the people of the country targeted, and that people should not be punished, as a rule, for the actions of their tyrannical overlords. After all, the people of Cuba and Iraq are in large part bigger victims of their governments than anyone else.

I'd also say that it's not been shown to be very effective. Sanctions against Cuba, Libya, Iran and Iraq don't seem to have worked; it took the war in Iraq to start shaping up Iraq and Libya, and Iran and Cuba don't look better despite decades of sanctions on both. So I'm amenable to varied criticisms of sanctions (if not to the Ward Churchill we-desereved-it line of 'thought').

What's interesting is that the divestment movement is essentially sanctions for movements without the political clout to get an embargo passed Congress. It's not as impactful, but it essentially serves as a sort of non-governmental sanction effort. In this way, it's libertarian friendly, because private divestment is voluntary and non-coercive in most of its implementation. While libertarians might not agree with the effort, it's at least hypothetically non-coercive. It's basically just a capital boycott. However, the type of people on the left who like to push divestment aren't discussing libertarian polemics or the intricacies of non-coercion. My assertion is that most of them would want to see an embargo against Israel if only it were politically possible, so I'm using divestment efforts as a proxy for the hard-left's support for sanction-esque measures.

At the same time, the more mainstream left, meaning the national politicians and interest groups of the Democratic Party, are moving to defend sanctions outright. They defend sanctions because it allows them to seem tough in foreign policy without resorting to war, and because sanctions are usually the status quo in many situations. Democrats are very big, apparently, on not rocking the boat as of late. So Democratic Senators tend to defend sanctions because it lets them minimize Republican counter-attacks of weakness and appeal to the status quo, which is usually going to have an advantage in politics.

But this means the hard left types have moved from hating sanctions to flirting with more and more sanction-like measures to exert their will. First they did it in the 1980s with South Africa. It was for a wonderful reason: protest apartheid. Now, I might be mistaken, but my understanding is that US companies hired black South Africans and, in accordance with US law and custom, paid them roughly equitable wages compared to white employees. If this is so, then divestment only served to punish the few employers in South Africa that were giving black South Africans a fair shake. So it seems like it's morally righteous - burn the wicked, upraise the righteous - but really it's a radicalization technique that punishes the best companies in the country and has no effect on the non-US, pro-aparthetid companies.

The hard left won't give up their sanctions complaints. They've got too much energy and outrage invested in blaming the US for sanctions on Iraq to drop it. I'm sure an embargo against Palestinian humanitarian aid would really piss them off. But that's not going to stop them from pushing embargoing measures to deal with foreign policy against countries they don't like. And the center-left is, at least in the short term, going to back sanction efforts against countries so that they can undercut the GOP's tough talk with some mildly tough talk of their own. The result is that the anti-sanctions left is more or less depleted.

Was it ever very strong? Not really. There was a resurgence of the anti-sanctions left in the 1990s in light of the embargo against Iraq. In fact, this pressure, much of it outside the US, prompted the Oil-For-Food program to help the people but hurt Saddam. And of course the left is always sympathetic to ending the Cuban embargo, perhaps more from their sympathy for national health coverage than any other reason. But the sympathies on the left against sanctions are dwindling in light of dual radicalization.

They split. Those closer to the center are embracing sanctions to seem tough in light of Republican foreign policy successes. Those closer to the loony fringe are embracing the sanction mindset to push the line against Israel. The result is a dearth of people who oppose sanctions prima facie. It's an interesting development, if not an immediately earth-shattering one; sanctions seemed to do okay even in light of left-wing opposition.

What's interesting is that the left is no longer playing to the quasi-pacifist crowd. They're not trying to be the nice guys, the "give peace a chance" people or the "peace at all costs" crowd. They're either the subtly pro-insurgent hard left or the pro-status quo moderates-playing-tough.

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