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Delusional Demands and ‘Maximum Pressure’

Christopher Sabatani notes [1] that the administration’s belief that they can sanction regimes into collapse makes no sense:

What these policies never made clear is the logical link between tighter sanctions and the expectation that imposing suffering on a country would either provoke citizens to rise against a brutal government or provoke a decision by elites to defect to prompt regime change. As David Cohen and Zoe Weinberg recently argued, sanctions have never supported regime change and are unlikely to do so in Iran and Venezuela. History and logic are not on the side of the administration when it comes to sanctions and peaceful democratic change in Venezuela.

No one has ever accused the Trump administration of being interested in history or logic, so we shouldn’t expect their policies to be informed by either one. It is nonetheless remarkable how heavily the administration continues to rely on “maximum pressure” tactics to achieve its goals in its three most high-profile foreign policy initiatives (i.e., Iran, Venezuela, North Korea) when there is absolutely no reason to think that such pressure tactics can force another government to make major concessions or capitulate. They have targeted three governments that define themselves in large part by their opposition and resistance to the U.S., and they think that they can squeeze them into surrender or collapse. Like a degenerate gambler at a slot machine, the administration thinks that all they need to win is just one more set of sanctions, and then another and another, and when the latest effort doesn’t get them the desired result they keep pulling on the same lever in the hope of a jackpot. The administration is convinced that it has a sure thing and it just needs a little more time to get the big payout, but the desired regime change or disarmament always eludes them. The difference between the administration’s sanctions addiction and the gambler’s habit is that the gambler might one day succeed by accident.

In each of these three cases, the administration has not given the other governments any incentive to make a deal because maximalist U.S. demands don’t give them anything to work with. North Korea might be prepared to reduce or limit its arsenal in exchange for sanctions relief, but it isn’t going to give up everything it has in return for unreliable promises from Washington. The administration doesn’t pay any attention to that, and insists on total disarmament first. The Iranian and Venezuelan governments have even less reason to give the administration what it wants, since it is effectively demanding that both of them cease to exist in their current form. All three regimes care about self-preservation to the exclusion of virtually anything else, and in all three cases the administration is telling them that they must do things that compromise or end their efforts at self-preservation. To call the administration’s demands non-starters is charitable. It would be more accurate to say that they are delusional. Because the administration’s demands are so divorced from the political reality of each country, U.S. policies in all three cases will continue failing, and the irrational application of more and more sanctions to extract concessions that are never going to be forthcoming will continue to the severe detriment of the civilian population.

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13 Comments To "Delusional Demands and ‘Maximum Pressure’"

#1 Comment By Christian J Chuba On May 2, 2019 @ 9:04 am

But in return for falling on their sword each of those ‘regimes’ get to display America’s greatness. Isn’t that reward enough?

#2 Comment By Alan Vanneman On May 2, 2019 @ 9:11 am

Sanctions have an “irresistible” appeal for Trump much as they did for Clinton. They show “toughness” without bloodshed, allowing foreign policy to function as a spectator sport, a modern adaptation of the Roman “circus”. They find their real purpose in domestic politics rather than foreign policy. For conservatives, ever-increasing sanctions are particularly exciting, fostering “crises” that naturally take precedence over domestic issues. “Who’s winning?” is a much more exciting, and thus much more “important”, question than “who’s going to pay for increasing Medicare costs?” Seen from the outside, John Bolton’s obsessive determination to back Iran into a corner seems to have no possible goal other than triggering a U.S. invasion a la Iraq, but he (probably) doesn’t think that way, at least not consciously. He just thinks that if lets them know he means business they’ll give in.

#3 Comment By SteveM On May 2, 2019 @ 9:37 am

Re: “AIt is nonetheless remarkable how heavily the administration continues to rely on “maximum pressure” tactics to achieve its goals in its three most high-profile foreign policy initiatives (i.e., Iran, Venezuela, North Korea) when there is absolutely no reason to think that such pressure tactics can force another government to make major concessions or capitulate.”

Great arguments by Daniel Larison. And they are even more applicable to great power targets that have much more autonomy. E.g. Canada the Washington lapdog detains a Huawei executive at U.S. command. China responds by shutting out imports of canola and pork from Canada. Canadian farmers are now screaming bloody murder. While Russia in turn says to China, “Hey, we can grow canola! We can ship you pork!” China replies, “Great, let’s do it! BTW, Canada – get lost…”

It takes the Nitwits in Washington a long time to recognize even the simplest of unintended consequences of their stupidity no matter how obvious. And when they finally do, it’s all over but the crying for the American taxpayers and businesses stuck with the pathological results.

#4 Comment By BD On May 2, 2019 @ 9:49 am

There’s probably no greater way to empower anti-American elements in foreign governments than for America to impose economic pain on those countries as a whole.

Has this tactic ever worked to strengthen pro-American elements? Does any country ever say “America is putting on the pain, let’s bend in their direction so we will win America’s favor”? I suspect this is a lot more about winning over hard-nosed elements here in America than it is about achieving any foreign policy result.

#5 Comment By TomG On May 2, 2019 @ 10:18 am

Indeed they are delusional. As Russian historian, Stephen Cohen, has said, sanctions are road rage. They are a substitution when one does not have any effective policy.

#6 Comment By Kent On May 2, 2019 @ 10:43 am

Sanctions assume that people in other countries wish they lived like Americans, and think the only reason they don’t is because of their government. Did Iranians live like Americans under the Shah? Nope, in fact they hated him so much they overthrew him. Did Venezuelans live like Americans before “socialism”? Of course not, in fact they hated their capitalist overlords so much they voted in socialism. So going to a system that Americans want is a step backwards for these people, not forwards.

The American people don’t understand the purpose of our foreign policy. Venezuela is a great example. In terms of natural resources, it is a fabulously wealthy nation. Yet it is underdeveloped and the population is generally poor. Why? Because the “capitalists” who own those resources don’t reinvest the profits back into industrializing the country. Instead, they partner with American corporations and banks to develop those resources and all profits are funneled back into Wall Street. The owners of the resources are effectively corrupted by US foreign policy into using their wealth to the benefit of America’s wealthy. Leaving the country poor. Same with Iran.

All of this is why sanctions cannot work. The government should in fact be doing the exact opposite. Building great relationships with the socialists and mullahs, and slowly corrupting them with wealth. You want Kim Jong Un to give up his nuclear weapons? Give him 25% equity in Samsung and Hyundai. And a billion dollars in US Treasuries. Problem solved.

#7 Comment By collin On May 2, 2019 @ 11:53 am

Is is too conspiracy to think that the ‘Bay Of Bolton’ protest/coup (hard to tell here and they probably chose close to May 1st to build on the protest already happening.) was not really designed to succeed but to start the big cable news cycle for an audience of one and his immediate followers. (It was too half assed even by Trump Administration standards.) So instead of trying to win the coup, it was operation Cable News modeled after the Nunes Memo talk. Just check Rubio twitter feed with claims of Cuban and Hezbollah(!) fights are being brought in.

Otherwise, we do need to remain sane and push back against any US involvement.

#8 Comment By Kouros On May 2, 2019 @ 1:16 pm

“To call the administration’s demands non-starters is charitable. It would be more accurate to say that they are delusional. Because the administration’s demands are so divorced from the political reality of each country, U.S. policies in all three cases will continue failing, and the irrational application of more and more sanctions to extract concessions that are never going to be forthcoming will continue to the severe detriment of the civilian population.”

We are an Empire now, we create our own reality…

#9 Comment By In Situ On May 2, 2019 @ 1:41 pm

“Just check Rubio twitter feed with claims of Cuban and Hezbollah(!) fights are being brought in.”

Rubio is a joke. One of the few reasons to try to reconcile oneself to the sickening reality of Trump in the White House is that during the 2016 primary Rubio was an all-too-real alternative.

#10 Comment By Anon On May 2, 2019 @ 8:50 pm

What a clown show! The coup was like a Monty Python skit.

#11 Comment By Sid Finster On May 3, 2019 @ 4:04 pm

The Trump Administration looking for an excuse for a war on Venezuela, just as they did in Iraq, Libya and Syria, to name a few recent examples.

The sanctions dance is just part of the runup. Again, look at Iraq, Libya and Syria for a few recent examples.

#12 Comment By TheSnark On May 4, 2019 @ 11:13 am

A big problem with this fixation on sanctions is that they are being wasted on minor targets. Iran, Venezuela, etc. may be a pain in the butt, but hardly pose a real threat for a country as big as the US. But by throwing financial sanctions at them and leveraging our dominance of the international payment system, we encourage the world to set up alternate payment systems that bypass the US and the dollar.

The Europeans are working on one, so are the Chinese (Russian oligarchs that can’t use Visa all have UnionPay, a Chinese payment system). It won’t be long before these are up and running. The next time the US faces a real threat, that very powerful tool will likely be gone.

#13 Comment By Martin On May 6, 2019 @ 7:31 am

The US Treasury website lists 30 sanctions programmes, whose targets range from North Korea to Zimbabwe and Venezuela. It is hard to identify many that are changing behaviour, despite the noise level that rises with each new piece of legislation.

In the case of Iran, sanctions will only work decisively if the US secures the cooperation of all of Iran’s trading partners, most notably China, India and Turkey, the way it has done with the energy companies of Europe. Even with all of America’s Israel Firsters policing Iran’s trade relationships, the US is unlikely to be able to apply enough pressure on what are Iran’s near neighbours to end the favourable deals they will be able to get on Iranian crude.
And what does the US get from commercially strangling Iran to death? Oh yes, Donald Trump gets that re-election funding he needs from Sheldon Adelson. And I suppose one must add America’s relationship with Saudi Arabia, the nightmare regime that beheads teenagers for sending Whats App messages, and finances global jihadism while exporting its truly evil Wahhabist ideology, you know, the one that inspired 9/11.