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‘Maximum Pressure’ Is Wrong

The Trump administration’s escalation of its economic war on Venezuela seems guaranteed to worsen the plight of the people without achieving any of our government’s stated goals:

Although both the US and Guaido deny that the measures are an embargo, experts in international law, international relations and NGOs operating in the country told The Independent they will still exacerbate an already dire humanitarian crisis – and hinder efforts to restore democracy.

One of the few consistencies across Trump’s foreign policy is the use of punitive measures that suffocate innocent civilians in a vain effort to strike at their political leaders. One thing all these policies have in common is that the only people that defend them are ideologues and Trump loyalists. There are no credible, independent regional and country experts that look at the “maximum pressure” campaigns that the U.S. is waging against Venezuela and Iran, for example, and conclude that the policies are the least bit defensible or likely to “work” on its own terms. The more that someone understands about the country and the government in question, the less likely that person is to agree with the administration’s actions.

Sanctions typically don’t cause the kind of political change that regime changers want. On the contrary, they sap the strength of regime opponents and leave the regime in a relatively stronger position internally than they were before:

Academics researching the impact of US sanctions on those countries say none offer a positive case study in restoring democracy; more likely, they weaken resistance to authoritarian governments as local populations are ground down by suffering.

Inasmuch as sanctions are a kind of siege, it doesn’t make sense to expect people inside a besieged country to be able to dislodge their government when they have been weakened even more by the siege than the government and its cronies. Regime changers seem to think that they can starve other governments into submission, but at the same time they expect the people who are also being starved to be capable of rising up and defeating the regime. Deepening isolation and poverty may wreck the country, but they don’t usually remove the government.

There is no question that “maximum pressure” is failing everywhere it is tried, and there is also no question that it causes tremendous harm to the civilian population, but what tends to get lost in discussions of these policies is that they are unjust abuses of power no matter whether they eventually “work” or not. There are some tactics that we should refuse to employ even if they were “effective” in forcing other states to yield, and I am increasingly convinced that sweeping economic sanctions of the kind that the U.S. has been using against Venezuela and Iran fall into that category. “Maximum pressure” sanctions are wrong for the same reason that indiscriminate attacks on civilian population centers are wrong. Our government has no right to do this to tens of millions of innocent people because it wants to force their government into making concessions or force it from power, and we need to recognize that “maximum pressure” is also an unwarranted and outrageous attack on whole nations that have done nothing to us.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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