Economic sanctions have a mixed record of delivering good results from bad governments. They never worked against Saddam Hussein in Iraq or with Kim Jong-Il in North Korea. And if they had an effect on South Africa under apartheid, it was at the margins.
There’s one good reason for that: the last person who usually suffers personally from international sanctions is the autocrat who holds all the power.
But analysts say Libyan leader Muammar el-Qaddafi is in an unusual spot. Unlike many of the world’s other rogues, Qaddafi hasn’t been isolated by international sanctions in recent years and has been free to do business with the rest of the world. As a result, they say, the chances are good that Qaddafi and his family have parked much of their personal fortunes in western banks, where they can be spotted and frozen.
With half of his country in open rebellion and out of his control, and his grip on the rest shaky, analysts say western governments have a chance of hitting him where it hurts the most: his and his family’s golden parachute.
“There is a vulnerability for Libya and for him,’’ said Juan Zarate, who worked on terrorist-financing issues in the Bush administration. “One of the interesting things here is that the more a country or an individual is integrated into the global system, the more vulnerable they are to being pursued. If Qaddafi has accounts in London, Italy, or the Cayman Islands, those assets are vulnerable.”
On Friday night, the United States and the European Union announced immediate freezes on assets tied to Qaddafi. Given Qaddafi's tempestuous relationship with the U.S. -- full relations were only re-established in 2008 -- it's not clear how much he and his entourage have stashed their personal fortunes in this country.
That's why it's probably more important that Switzerland and the European Union were already moving in the same direction. The Swiss government jumped first, ordering Swiss banks on Thursday to freeze all assets tied to Qaddafi and his regime. The order covers real estate and luxury goods as well as money and securities, and it names 29 individuals tied to Qadaffi and his family. On Friday, European Union officials announced that all E.U. member countries would impose asset freezes as well.
Qadaffi's "outrageous behaviour in the past few days demands we send him back into the cold," wrote Catherine Ashton, the E.U.'s foreign policy chief, in an op-ed Friday in the International Herald Tribune.
“The important thing is for the international community to act quickly,’’ said Zarate. “Can you find enough of his assets quickly, and hold them at risk, so that he finds that dangerous?”
Qaddafi has always presented himself as a quasi-mystical figure who would fight to the death before fleeing into exile, and his willingness to bomb and shoot legions of Libyan protesters -- not to mention his ramblings about hallucinogenic drugs and Osama bin Laden -- have only reinforced that image.
But it's a good bet that Qaddafi's family and most important allies would rather flee than die, especially if they can look forward to a plush exile somewhere in Europe or Africa. If enough of them abandon him, Qaddafi is likely to be a goner no matter what he does.
And while Qaddafi already seems to have passed the point of no return, even that isn't certain. Despite being an international outlaw for years, he managed to patch up ties to the outside world by renouncing weapons of mass destruction and arranging a settlement with families of those killed on Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.
The golden parachute might have more allure to him than he lets on.