Using economic embargo against Syria is risky


President Bush, operating under authority given to him by the “Syrian Accountability Act” passed in December, has begun an economic war, in the form of an economic embargo, against Syria. The act bans all exports to Syria except food and medicine, bans flights to and from Syria, restricts banking transactions and authorizes the freezing of assets of Syrians suspected of being involved in terrorism and other activities.
This is not a smart move.
You might think that with things going so much more poorly in Iraq than advocates of the war had predicted, and with the conflict there stretching U.S. military capacity to the limit, the administration would be circumspect about opening new fronts of hostility. But if the definition of fanaticism is doing the same thing again and again and expecting different results, administration policy in the Middle East fits the definition fairly well.
National leaders seeking to express disapproval of a regime in another country are fond of instituting economic embargoes. They seldom work, if the purpose is to weaken or remove the offending national leader. Fidel Castro in Cuba, for example, has used the 40-year embargo to blame the United States for all the hardships caused by his own foolish policies and to shore up his own power.
Trade between the United States and Syria is not so significant — only about $300 million a year — that ending it is likely to impoverish Syria. It will mainly serve to alienate Syrian President Bashar Assad, who, although hardly a model leader, has not harbored al-Qaida in his country and has even offered some minor cooperation in the attempt to track down al-Qaida operatives.
As Claude Salhani, foreign editor for United Press International, explained in a recent policy analysis on Syria for the Cato Institute: “Saving face is of paramount importance in the Middle East. That helps to explain why overt pressure rarely results in capitulation by Middle Eastern leaders.”
Is an economic embargo a prelude to more forceful efforts, perhaps including military means, to force “regime change” in Syria? As in Iraq, we would do well to be careful for what we wish for. In a remotely democratic political system, the likely replacement for the Bashar Assad regime (as might turn out to be the case in Iraq) would be a radical Islamist regime.
The best way to promote freedom in other countries is through engagement and especially through trade that promotes a larger and more independent private sector. Cutting off trade is counterproductive — if the real purpose is more freedom rather than creating a pretext for yet another war.