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The U.S. Needs to Reject Endless Economic War, Too

Broad sanctions are a kind of warfare and the U.S. needs to stop waging this war on civilians.

Peter Beinart makes a good case that broad sanctions regimes are immoral and destructive:

Why are policies that have proved so ineffective and immoral so hard to undo? Because abandoning them would require admitting hard truths: North Korea will not abandon its nuclear weapons. Iran will remain a regional power. Mr. Assad, Mr. Maduro and the Communist government in Havana aren’t going anywhere. America’s leaders would rather punish already brutalized populations than concede the limits of American power.

Like other forms of open-ended, desultory warfare, broad sanctions that affect entire countries need to be brought to an end. Just as we repudiate military attacks on civilian targets, we need to renounce economic warfare whose main and sometimes only victims are innocent civilians. The U.S. has enormous power to damage the economies of other countries, but exercising this power by strangling tens of millions of people with sanctions is inherently abusive and wrong. Pointing to the economic wreckage that sanctions create, as sanctions advocates often do, is akin to boasting about committing indiscriminate bombing of cities. As Beinart says, sanctions typically don’t achieve the goals that their supporters seek, but the more important point is that we cannot justify the means of impoverishing and starving people by pointing to the ends that these cruel policies might serve.

The U.S. does need to recognize the limits of its power, but more than that it needs to recognize that there are some things that it has no right to demand even if it might be able to coerce another government into doing it. The fundamental error of the “maximum pressure” campaigns that have been waged against Iran and Venezuela, among others, is that it is taken for granted that the U.S. has the right to dictate their internal and external policies. Our government does not have that right, and it never did. When a government is presented with such extreme ultimatums that threaten its independence or even its survival, it is always going to dig in and refuse to give any ground. Sanctions cannot possibly achieve such maximalist ends, and by pursuing such ends the U.S. makes a mockery of its past commitments to respecting the independence and sovereignty of other countries.

Beinart says that the U.S. hasn’t abandoned using broad sanctions because to do so would require admitting hard truths about political realities in these countries, but there are a couple other reasons. First of all, there is no domestic political price to be paid for strangling the economy of another country. These are typically countries that the U.S. didn’t do much business with in the first place, so there is not much of a domestic constituency directly affected by sweeping sanctions. The effects of sanctions are largely invisible to the American public, so most voters don’t even know what our government is doing to these countries or how much it is harming other people. The other reason is that there is typically a dedicated group of hard-liners that is obsessed with imposing these sanctions on the targeted states, and they are eager to portray any relaxation of sanctions as a “gift” to the targeted regime despite the fact that the sanctions mostly hurt the people rather than the regime. Most of the political risk is on the side of those calling for the lifting of cruel and destructive sanctions, and this creates perverse incentives for politicians to support collective punishment of innocent people.

Fixing our warped debate on sanctions will take a long while, but there are some promising signs that there is a shift in thinking about these policies that is already happening. The use of sweeping sanctions has come under closer scrutiny in recent years because of the previous administration’s frequent use of them. More members of Congress have started speaking out against these policies, and some have proposed legislation to require an accounting of the humanitarian impact of sanctions. The Biden administration revoked the Houthi designation because they recognized the disastrous famine that it would have caused if it had remained in place. We need to press them to extend that same understanding to other “maximum pressure” sanctions that cause preventable deaths in several countries. Above all, we need to make clear to the public and Congress that broad sanctions are a kind of warfare and the U.S. needs to stop waging this war on civilians.