Sanctions, Spies and Shuttered Societies
By Ronald Bruce St John
Global Beat Syndicate April 19, 2004
DUNLAP, Ill.When it comes to Iraq, most Americans agree our
intelligence on unconventional weapons could have been better. The
Bush administration went to war because Saddam Hussein stockpiled
weapons of mass destruction. But no such weapons have yet been found.
The reverse was true with Libya. While we exaggerated the threat
in Iraq, we underestimated the danger in Libya. The Gadhafi regime
proved to be much further along in acquiring unconventional weapons
than anyone realized.
In both countries, the U.S. government has too often been its
own worst enemy. By implementing tough commercial and diplomatic
sanctions, we tightly shuttered already closed societies.
In the Iraqi case, we went one step further, discrediting UN efforts
to scour the country for unconventional weapons. U.S. intelligence
agencies now freely admit we lacked spies in Iraq, what the intelligence
community calls humint or human intelligence sources
on the ground. Yet, the Bush administration worked overtime to deride
the efforts of UN inspectors, the best Iraqi humint
the world had at the time.
The Libya case is instructive here. In the mid-1970s, a few years
after Moammar Gadhafi seized power, only a handful of English-language
books on Libya were in print. That number had swelled to well over
100 by 1986 when the Reagan administration applied sanctions on
Libya. The flood of Libyan students to U.S. schools and universities,
which numbered in the thousands in the 1970s and early 1980s, also
dried up after 1986.
Executive Order 12543, signed by Reagan on January 7, 1986, prohibited
transactions by U.S. persons relating to transportation to
or from Libya as well as any transaction by a U.S. person
relating to travel by U.S. citizens or permanent resident aliens
to Libya. The Office of Foreign Assets Control termed the
prohibition a travel restriction as opposed to a travel
ban. This authors personal experience proved it amounted to
the same thing.
In consequence, American field research on the Libyan political
economy was squelched. A mere handful of books were published on
Libya in the last decade. And almost none of them reflected firsthand
knowledge of the country. The flow of students and professors to
and from Libya also stopped.
Executive Order 12543, and related sanctions, returned Americans
and our policymakers to a state of ignorance about Libya. Our miscalculation
of Libyan unconventional weapons programs is only the most recentand
perhaps most seriousexample of the depths our ignorance reached.
The Bush administration was in a state of ignorance similar to
our knowledge of current affairs in Libya when it invaded Iraq.
The sanctions regime in place hamstrung efforts to understand what
was happeningand, importantly, not happeninginside the
country. The consequences of inadequate intelligence have been disastrous,
both for the Iraqi people and the coalition forces working to restore
The 1996 Iran-Libya Sanctions Act tightened the noose on Libya,
adding Iran to the mix. And now we have the Syria Accountability
and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act of 2003 imposing sanctions
Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Sudan and Syria are on the
State Departments list of state sponsors of international
terrorism. No state has been removed from that list since its creation
in 1979. Instead, the Bush administration added a refinement in
2002 with its designation of Iran, Iraq and North Korea as an axis
of evil. If dogged pursuit of a policy for 25 years, with
little evidence of success, does not highlight a need for reform,
then the term failed policy has no meaning.
Recent experience, from Iraq to Libya to Iranplus any number
of carefully researched academic analyses of such sanctionssuggests
that sanctions seldom provoke the policy change desired by the United
States. Shutters tightly drawn have also proved hard to reopen,
making it difficult to understand and influence events in closed
Leaving aside other issues, employing sanctions against Syria may
be politically popular to some in an election year. But they make
it far more difficult to gain vital intelligence needed in a war
against terrorism. We should instead engage countries like Syria
on all levels with academics, students, touristsand U.S. officials.
A policy of openness and inclusion, focused on dialogue and change,
not isolation and recalcitrance, will prove fare more effective
in achieving policy change with the countries on the terrorism watch
Ronald Bruce St John
ABOUT THE WRITER
Ronald Bruce St John, an analyst for Foreign Policy in Focus, has
published widely on Middle Eastern issues. His latest book on the
region is Libya and the United States: Two Centuries of Strife
(Penn Press, 2002)