How Should We Speak About Economic Sanctions?

Economic sanctions are not an alternative to war, they are an alternative form of war.

American sanctions policy is a casual, and sometimes recreational way of flipping war on autopilot. It is more regrettable than strange then that the “forever wars” polylogue has excluded sanctions from closer examination.

You may have received a different sentiment towards sanctions than the one I intend to advance since they are normally scripted as a worry-free and bloodless substitute to war. Sanctions in their motivations, consequences, and enforcement are not easily distinguished from more “kinetic” warfare. The only noteworthy distinction between the two is the reduced short-term cost to the aggressor, including political costs.

Although, the low-cost incurred by the US in sanctions enforcement is more of an historical anomaly than a necessary quality of economic warfare itself. American dominance in global finance gives it blockade power that other states and empires of the past could not execute without a floating and loudly contested military blockade.

British efforts to blockade the European continent against Napoleon, and then the Germans twice, were more visibly “war-like” because the UK could not close off economic access to entire countries with the ease or effectiveness that America now can, but it’s worth recalling that this is what “sanctions policy” once looked like.

Global economic connections do not spread evenly; they have a habit of concentration and self-reinforcement. Happily for American strategizers, network concentration has created economic choke points that the US is in a position to deny access to, such as the SWIFT financial messaging system, and access to the US dollar. Controlling these choke points allow the US to inflict much more thorough blockades than has been historically possible, and at a lower cost too.

These choke points aren’t quite tangible, at least not in the way that the Suez Canal, or the Dardanelles, or the Straits of Tiran are. They are physical enough though to create crying starvation.

After Iraq was removed from Kuwaiti territory in 1991, sanctions which were initially seen as an alternative to war by many American politicians, including Joe Biden, became an opportunity to fight an economic war against Iraq indefinitely.

UN Security Council Resolution 661, which was passed in August of 1990 after the Iraqi annexation of Kuwait, and primarily enforced by the US Navy, forbade all exports and imports to Iraq except for medicine and food “in humanitarian circumstances”. In practice, Iraq did not have the money to purchase these things nor the equipment to store or transport them. From 1990–2003 it is estimated that at least 500,000 children died as result of these sanctions.

Bernie Sanders’ posture as someone who doggedly opposed both Iraq wars says more about what he thinks qualifies as a “war” than anything else. When Sanders was first elected to the House of Representatives, less than two weeks before the US intervention in 1991, he described sanctions as “non-violent” and framed them as an alternative to war. One wonders where sanctions’ coercive power comes from if not violence.

It is also sometimes said that Al Gore would not have gone to war with Iraq had he been elected in 2000. Are you sure? Are you sure he didn’t do that already as Vice-President? It is apparently only war if American soldiers are directly at risk. Both Sanders and Gore were perfectly willing to allow an economic war with no exit strategy that was primarily directed at non-combatants to continue indefinitely.

The Clinton Administration’s policy of strangulation through the 1990’s killed more Iraqi civilians than the occupation beginning in 2003. If you find this surprising, or even offensive, than you have fallen victim to the framing of economic sanctions as “non-violent”.

The focus here should be on a politician’s ability to avoid long-term political consequences for supporting open-ended economic war, and not on a principled opposition to warfare, because that’s where their focus is. (Bernie Sanders, now and then ostensibly an independent, made sanctions against Iraq a matter of tri-partisan consensus).

In December of 1990 when a response to the annexation of Kuwait was still being debated in the Senate, Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana said presciently: (49:00)

“Instead of formal sessions, Congress has substituted hearings, which have thus far allowed many witnesses and Senators to propose that Saddam Hussein should suffer a lingering death of his military might and his citizenry through extension of economic sanctions for months and perhaps even years if a single American would thereby be saved from military action. Now if in fact the alliance of nations arrayed against Iraq lasted that long, and no military accidents or terrorism directed against the US or allies occurred for months and years, and if economic sanctions really remained airtight, the world would witness the starvation first of the remaining Kuwait survivors and other foreign nationals still in harm’s way, and then innocent Iraqi citizens victimized by the reckless Iraqi dictator. Saddam and his army would still be eating, and the American people would rightly question “whoever suggested the virtue of endless sanctions, and the hideous starvation of hundreds of thousands of helpless people?”

Although this was the most explicit statement of concern about Iraqi civilians given by a Senator before the intervention, it is excessively optimistic in assuming that the American public would question the utility and cruelty of endless sanctions.

American sanctions policy should be treated as war in public discussion due to its impact on foreign civilian populations, but another reason is that the President finds himself with the power to sanction at his leisure, and wields it with the grace of a child smashing sandcastles on the beach.

On May 8, 2018 President Trump removed the US from the “Iran deal”, and most of the financial sanctions were re-applied by the end of the year. Surely this was more of “an act of war” than the assassination of General Soleimani? The focus on war as something with explosions does little in explaining American coercive policy, and the foreign responses to it.

The low cost of enforcing sanctions, as well as their powerful expressive value (Iran is bad so we should do bad things to them) is how an American President can re-apply sanctions so flippantly and renounce an agreement he doubtless never read nor could read.

Apart from the concern one might have from the President’s ability to unilaterally declare an economic war, there is also the issue of a Republican Party leader refusing to honor an agreement made by the former Democratic leader. This effectively creates alternating Republican and Democratic Americas, where one America does not have to honor the agreements made by the other any more than it would have to honor the agreements made by any other country.

The coupling of casual sanctions policy along with national party polarization means sanctions will lose their coercive effect because no American political party can guarantee that the other will honor the agreement. Iran, or any other country (North Korea, Russia, Venezuela, etc.) will not have any reason to believe that a lasting change in their actions will lead to lasting relief from sanctions.

If countries have no incentive to change policy as a response to American sanctions (North Korea), and US politicians have no political incentive to remove economic sanctions (Cuba), but political incentive to increase them, then what we will get is endless and escalating trade restrictions that lead to little but civilian suffering and a gradual decline of America’s ability to sanction at all as other powers begin to reduce their reliance on the dollar and the American market. China, Russia, and the EU, will not leave themselves vulnerable to the mood swings of an American President forever.

A fundamental overhaul of American sanctions policy and philosophy will have to take place if America is to keep these powers, and use them for good. Perhaps America could limit itself to sanctioning political elites and specific businesses, rather than entire countries, and legislate specific conditions that would automatically remove sanctions once met.

This is will almost certainly not happen.

Trying my best since 1996.

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