War by Other Means
According to the Council on Foreign Relations website (cfr.org) “economic sanctions” are the withdrawal of customary trade and financial relations for foreign- and security-policy purposes.” Sanctions may prohibit commercial activity with an entire country, like the U.S. embargo of Cuba, or they may be targeted, blocking transactions by and with particular businesses, groups, or individuals. They include travel bans, asset freezes, arms embargoes, capital restraints, foreign aid reductions, and trade restrictions. Economic sanctions are not necessarily imposed because of economic circumstances—they may also be imposed for a variety of political, military, and social issues. They can also be overused:
Economic sanctions are increasingly being used to promote the full range of American foreign policy objectives. Yet all too often sanctions turn out to be little more than expressions of U.S. preferences that hurt American economic interests without changing the target’s behavior for the better. As a rule, sanctions need to be less unilateral and more focused on the problem at hand. Congress and the executive branch need to institute far more rigorous oversight of sanctions, both prior to adopting them and regularly thereafter, to ensure that the expected benefits outweigh likely costs and that sanctions accomplish more than alternative foreign policy tools.Brookings.edu
President Donald Trump Found Sanctions Handy
American use of punitive sanctions against other countries was relatively unusual until Trump ratcheted up their frequency. The Trump administration imposed sanctions at a record-shattering pace of about three times a day during the president’s time in office, a total of more than 3,900 distinct sanctions actions, according to data collected by Los Angeles international law firm, Gibson Dunn. These measures targeted companies, individuals and even oil tankers tied to Iran, North Korea, China, Venezuela and Russia. The beauty of sanctions from the Trump government’s point of view was that they were easy to implement. All that was required for the president to set in motion their damaging–sometimes lethal–proceedings was to proclaim them. Many of these sanctions actions amount to war by other means, entailing the same damage to the society, the same victims, the same disorder, and the same suffering. Just less paperwork.
The legality of sanctions as means of enforcement traditionally provided incentives for obedience with the law. A judge may sanction a party during a legal proceeding, thus imposing penalties. The key concepts here are “the law,” “a judge” and “legal proceeding,” factors conspicuously lacking in many of Trump’s sanctions, which often seem more like simple gratuitous harrassment. The new President Biden has hinted that he will review the Trump sanctions, but it remains to be seen what that review will amount to.
What’s with America’s Iran Mania?
The countries that have suffered most in recent years from American sanctions are Iran, Venezuela and Cuba. As for Iran, why do successive American governments harbor so much rancour vis a vis Iran when, in reality, the shoe should be on the other foot. And for cogent reasons:
- In 1953 the US orchestrated a gratuitous regime-change operation of a popular, democratically-elected Iranian government.
- Then they ushered in a 25-year-long dictatorial regime under the Shah, whose SAVAK secret police, created with the help of the CIA, were legendary for their creative interrogation, torture and execution techniques. This regime ruled from 1957 until it was disolved by the Iranian Revolution in 1979.
- Still not satisfied, the CIA enouraged Iraq’s dictator, Sadam Hussein, and his army of Sunni Muslim troops to start a war with Iran. The Americans supported them with materiel, targetting information, in-air refueling and other intelligence work for the duration of that war which ended in a UN-brokered stalemate in 1988.
- That war had a fascinating aftermath, one which cast a shadow of doubt on American strategy. When they handed the government of Iraq to the Iraqi Shiite Muslims they seemingly forgot that Iran was also a Shiite country . The Iraqi leaders and their Iranian brothers in the faith took less than the blink of an eye to make common cause against the Americans, who are still in the process of backing out of Iraq–where they wrought so much destruction and human tragedy. There is a lesson in this tragic series of events: You probably shouldn’t go into the business of hearts and minds if you’re heartless and mindless
- The frosting on this strange cake didn’t appear until January, 2020, with the Trump-ordered drone assassination of Iran’s preeminent old soldier, Qasem Soleimani, while enroute to a meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi. Other forms of American sanctions, while damaging and reprehensible, can be responded to through diplomatic or legal channels. But the murder of Soleimani while on a diplomatic mission amounts to an authentic casus belli. The equivalent in the United States would be to assassinate General Colin Powell and his collaborators while they are being driven to work.
Very Unstable, Very Erratic
It’s common knowledge that Donald Trump has an unstable, erratic character and that he was advised at the time of Soleimani’s assassination by some of America’s most bloodthirsty neo-con strategtists. After the 2020 election citizens of good faith around the world were looking forward to a fresh approach from the White House, occupied by a person who would have the courage and magnanimity to reset US/Iranian relations on a less bellicose basis. keeping in mind actions like the US sequestering of an Iranian petroleum tanker en route to Venezuela and selling its cargo. What was that about? To an impartial observer it makes no sense, enjoys no legtitimacy. In no way can it be considered diplomacy. It was just baseless Trumpish bullying and this distinction is not lost on the world.
At last a new “normal” president was elected and began to make long-overdue corrections. But President Biden’s decisions on Iran were anything but correct. Instead of a rapid rectification of the American naval blockade of Venezuela (another act of war), and an apology for the killing of Soleimani, as well as a mutual reconsideration of the Iran nuclear agreement that Trump had senselessly breached, America’s new president lurches forward with the same old unreasonable demands and crass threats. Considering the context of American abuses and boutades, not only was that dubious diplomacy; but bad manners. Has the new American president been Zooming too much with Prime Minister Netanyahu?
From Iran to Cuba Is a Short Hop
The case of Iran is reminiscent of that of Cuba. After Fidel Castro’s ragtag revolutionary forces deposed American-backed dictator, Fulgencio Batista, in 1959, President John F. Kennedy and his pack of best and brightest foreign-policy advisors (the ones who brought you Vietnam) took particular pleasure in turning their backs on the Cuban people during the times of scarcity that followed Batista’s downfall. They also launched the clumsy and unsuccessful CIA-organized Bay of Pigs invasion by counter-revolutionary Cubans based in 1961. The humiliation that accompanied that resounding failure reverberated for decades. Miami still has a Bay of Pigs Memorial in Little Havana.
Fidel Castro, meanwhile, turned to the Russians to sell Cuba’s sugar, and before long they were partners. How would history have changed if it had occurred to President Kennedy to send a couple of boatloads of powdered milk and process cheese to Cuba in their time of need? But no, the Kennedy brothers, John and Bobby, not only doubled down on their Cuban sanctions, but initiated a decades-long CIA campaign (dubbed The Cuban Project or Operation Mongoose) to try to assassinate El Comandante. Castro died in his bed in 2016 at the age of 90.
Today the Cuban people remain victims of the American punitive embargo, the longest in modern history. For everything they have endured during 60 years of iron-clad resistance to American punishment the Cuban people have earned the civilized world’s admiration. Under the circumstances Cuba’s achievements have been monumental. The impoverished little Caribbean country today has a 100% literacy rate and one of the finest public health systems in the world. Their medical scientists have just announced their own Covid 19 vaccine. Will 11 million Cubans ever be liberated from the curse that befell them essentially because the Kennedys got miffed in 1961?
Venezuela’s experience of American sanctions has been and remains particularly heinous, based on petroleum lust and knee-jerk anti-socialism. It’s summed up nicely on this Timeline of of Half a Decade of US Economic War Against Venezuela published by Telesur English on 22 May 2019.
Keeping the US Safe from Socialism
American schoolchildren are taught that one of the gravest dangers their country faces is socialism, particularly in its most virulent variety, communism. These collectivist ideologies are not only dangerous for their subversive content but also for their tendency to spread from one country to another, domino fashion. Most of America’s wars over the past century have been to contain communism, with the exception of the Second World War in which the Soviet Union was America’s most valuable ally. Nevertheless, America’s implacable wars against communism have taken a terrible toll in lives and property both among foreign citizens categorized as socialists, and American patriots themselves.
Young Americans are also taught that there are two key institutions that maintain a constant vigil against communist and socialist encroachment, thus keeping America safe. These are the US Congress and Armed Forces, which are on constant alert worldwide to detect, engage and defeat socialist regimes wherever they arise, or even threaten to arise. Their concerns extend to the home front, where communist and socialist sympathizers are surveilled and controlled by ever-vigilant authorities, the FBI in particular. They are aware that socialism is insidious and can take root anywhere.
That’s why the US Congress and the military maintain a constant anti-socialist and anti-communist awareness. They are trained to identify and eliminate leftist trends in American society. That said, some cynics have pointed out that these conscientious controllers have overlooked two semi-clandestine socialist groups in their own country. Ironically, these are precisely the US Congress and the Armed Services, the only collectives in America who enjoy socialist-style health services. Fortunately, this minor anomaly doesn’t prevent them from crushing socialism in other people’s countries.