Will Sanctions Save Zimbabwe?

Events of the past few weeks have made it clear that President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe is a dictator and a bully who presides over a sham democracy epitomized by today’s mock “election.” But does that sad fact require or even justify imposing sanctions against that already tortured southern African country?

European Union leaders are already talking tough about withdrawing their ambassadors. Meanwhile, the UN Security Council plans to discuss new sanctions against Zimbabwe as early as next week.

I share the dismay with Mugabe’s thuggery and mismanagement of the economy, but count me skeptical that trade sanctions, oil embargoes and other economic reprisals would achieve anything positive.

If 165,000 percent inflation, widespread hunger, and mass shortages and unemployment have not undermined Mugabe’s government, Western sanctions are probably not going to make a crucial difference. Zimbabwe’s president and his sycophants will continue to enjoy their palatial homes, catered meals and chauffeured limos. Sanctions would only deepen the suffering of their unfortunate subjects. As our research at Cato has shown, economic sanctions almost never work.

Another complication is that Mugabe’s government is not unique. According to Freedom House, Zimbabwe’s suppression of civil and political liberties is no worse than 15 other countries, including China, Belarus, and Saudi Arabia. A total of 44 other countries share with Zimbabwe the label of “Not Free.” Should the West aim sanctions at all of those countries, too, or is Zimbabwe to be singled out because, by a fluke, the opposition actually came close to winning a rigged election?

The ongoing tragedy in Zimbabwe will probably not end until that country’s closest neighbors, including South Africa, intervene aggressively, or Mugabe himself departs this world to meet his maker.