Broad economic sanctions are a form of warfare, and the U.S. is by far the
most frequent economic belligerent in the world. Our government’s overuse and
abuse of sanctions has increased by leaps and bounds in just the last two decades.
Sanctions designations increased significantly during the Obama years, and then
under Trump with 1,457 designations in the year of 2018 alone. Trump’s multiple
“maximum pressure” campaigns represented a dramatic escalation of
economic warfare against Iran,
Korea, and Syria,
and so far Biden has kept all of them intact. In each case, the US chose to
launch these economic wars to try to compel capitulation by the targeted states
as if they were rebellious subjects that needed to be brought to heel rather
than the sovereign and independent countries that they are.
Economic wars cause the preventable deaths of tens
of thousands of people, and in the most extreme cases they have caused deaths
in the hundreds of thousands. The death toll doesn’t fully account for the misery
that economic warfare creates, but it reminds us that broad sanctions are coercive
and destructive by design. The US doesn’t need to resort to military
action to cause civilian casualties in unnecessary wars. It just abuses its
great economic and financial power to choke intransigent nations when their
leaders refuse to bend to Washington’s will.
Placing entire populations under a modern form of siege is intended to cause
massive harm to the civilian population. Strangling the people economically
is not an unforeseen or unintended “side effect” of an economic war.
It is what the siege is supposed to do. Sometimes this is done for the sake
of imposing collective punishment on a nation, and sometimes it is an attempt
to foment regime change from within, but it always represents an attack by our
government on the people of other countries for things they cannot control or
change. Broad sanctions strike at every aspect of life. At a recent
event hosted by the Quincy Institute on the effects
of sanctions, Prof. Asli Bali said, “The economic consequences of broad-based
sanctions affect health infrastructure, water and sanitation, the possibility
of sustaining education, and access to critical foods….Sanctions that we present
as ‘starving Assad’ are actually a form of collective punishment that are starving
a civilian population.”
Sanctions advocates will often portray broad sanctions as “low cost”
and an “alternative to war,” but the costs they impose are “low”
only to the policymakers that inflict the punishment. The people on the receiving
end rightly perceive these policies as an aggressive assault on them and their
country. Sanctions advocates then add insult to injury by feigning concern for
the people whom they have chosen to starve
Like other wars of choice waged by our government, economic wars against entire
countries fail on their own terms. They inflict tremendous hardship and deprivation
on tens of millions of people, and in the end they do not even achieve the political
and policy goals that their supporters claim to have. Very much like our other
wars, broad sanctions on a country never really end. Sanctions are politically
easy to impose, and there is almost no pressure on political leaders to lift
them. They are applied to so many different issues that even if a targeted state
complied with Washington’s demands in one area they would still be sanctioned
for other reasons. As we have seen in the case of Iran, a sanctioned government
can fully comply with the requirements of an agreement endorsed by the Security
Council and the US can still turn around and reimpose its own sanctions with
impunity. The arrogant abuse of this power by the US has started to make other
major governments look for workarounds to conduct legitimate commerce without
suffering US penalties, but for the time being sanctioned countries have to
adapt to the sieges and find their own ways to evade them.
Beyond the damage done to the lives and livelihoods of innocent people, economic
wars tend to have pernicious political effects on the countries in question.
Government officials and cronies tighten their grip on power and use their connections
to enrich themselves off of smuggling while most of the population gets poorer,
domestic hard-liners use the sanctions as an excuse for cracking down on dissent,
and all the while the policies that the US opposes remain the same. In the case
of attempted regime change, the targeted leaders become more entrenched, and
they can use US hostility to their advantage by casting themselves as nationalist
heroes. As with other kinds of war, the result is more authoritarianism and
corruption in the government and less freedom for the people. Just as war is
the health of the state, economic war is a boon to authoritarian rulers. Sanctions
advocates often paint themselves as allies of the people, but their support
for collective punishment shows their true colors.
Economic warfare against ordinary people is unjust, and it treats tens of millions
of people around the world as our enemies when they have done nothing and could
do nothing to us. Sanctions are not an alternative to war. They inflict indiscriminate
death and destruction on another country, and in some cases the economic war
is just a prelude to later attack. There are certain weapons and tactics that
we consider inherently indiscriminate and unjustifiable, and we should apply
the same restrictions to sanctions. Broad sanctions are indefensible and cruel,
and our government should cease imposing them.
Daniel Larison is a contributing editor and weekly columnist for Antiwar.com
and maintains his own site at Eunomia.
He is former senior editor at The American Conservative. 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.