In The Thrall Of Sanctions

Copyright © by Len Holman, 3/28/14


  For the mightiest, least prudent, military in the world, it is an irony which no politician or military commander even senses, let alone understands:  we have to “impose” sanctions instead of nukes; we impose sanctions instead of worldwide policing: sanctions instead of the planet’s mightiest muscle.  The latest sanction regime is being used to make Russia play nice, after its takeover of Crimea, and the worry that it won’t stop there, but will annex eastern Ukraine. 

  Sanctions are what rich and well-connected countries do to other, less-rich and well-connected countries—but who have some military might which would make confrontation dangerously lethal, or countries—like Cuba—who had the backing of the old Soviet empire.  Speaking of Cuba, we’ve had sanctions on the Cubans for over 50 years and STILL have a Castro in power.  Obama is going around the world, phoning, cajoling, and making veiled threats that the Russians will pay for their transgressions.  They will be shut out of the world’s economic community and return to the grim and ugly days of the Soviet Union.  All will be forgiven if they just give back Crimea and pull their troops away from the south and east of Ukraine. No problem.  

  But don’t sanctions work?  I mean, look at Iran, the poster country for sanctions’ effectiveness and inevitable success.  There is no end to the “expert” commentary on the crushing burden sanctions have placed on Iran’s economy.  But look and see what has happened.  We, the West, have always said that Iran must rid itself of its nuclear program because a “program” leads to nuclear weapons.  So we froze assets and leaned on other countries to do something similar, but now, many years later, we are negotiating with the Persian nation over HOW MUCH of a nuclear program they will have, how much uranium they will be able to enrich, and at what levels—not whether they’ll have one at all.  Meanwhile, the leaders of Iran, the army, the police and all the relatives, businessmen and various hangers-on have not missed a meal.  It is a truism (except in the American congress) that bad history makes for bad decisions.  If the facts are wrong, if the premises are wrong, then the conclusion (and/or conclusions) drawn is flawed, ipso facto

  And whatever happened to Obama’s pledge—repeated many times in many ways—to make America a good, trusted partner?  Sanctions don’t help that idea at all. Russia supplies about a third of Europe’s gas and oil and it seems that Angela Merkel must walk yet another fine line between talking the sanctions talk and keeping homes in Munich heated.  Of course, the Russian president is mindful of this interplay and many of the top Russian leaders will no doubt be chagrined to learn they will no longer be welcome at Disney World. But the world is a much smaller place now than it was 25 years ago, and every sanction can backfire.  We sanctioned Saddam and finally had to put boots on the ground to get the job done—but after all the blood and money spent, what do we have now?  A divided and bloody Iraq, that’s what.  What about South Africa?  We reluctantly applied sanctions to that apartheid state, but it was the moral revulsion and student protests and general disgust with injustice that turned the tide, since the South African economy was already in very big trouble.  We won’t even discuss the Hermit Kingdom, in which North Koreans are reported to be eating bark instead of microwaved pizza rolls, and toward which the West directs its moral and financial outrage, but in which the rulers still rule and in which its people still munch bugs for breakfast. 

  We have something called “secondary sanctions” to use.  These are economic sanctions targeting any individuals or companies which provide financial aid to the Russian government.  In a shooting war, when the guns stop, there is the beginning of a cease-fire.  A sanctions war just keeps on giving:  misery, starvation, the crumbling of infrastructure, humiliation, and very hard feelings.  Our president, in a speech he gave in The Hague, called Russia a “weakened, regional power,” implying a small megalomaniacal warlord-ocracy throwing its weight around in service to its overheated imaginings of grandeur and power that Once Was. Ok, that’s covered—now what?  If we manage to bring Russia to its economic knees, what then?  Which country will follow?  We certainly won’t be landing troops in Crimea.  We certainly won’t put our American bodies and weapons in service to Ukraine. 

  So we will wheedle, cajole, threaten, and scowl our way into another messy situation which will not resolve itself unless one of the parties involved humbles itself and loses a LOT of face.  So we will continue to use the Economic Bomb until Russia crumbles, caves, and begs our forgiveness…or not.  Let’s hope that bomb doesn’t explode in our faces.  Or let’s hope the next President and next congress can take care of it with some sanity and diplomacy. Too much to hope?  For my part, I don’t worry too much about the red lines in Crimea and Ukraine. I worry about the coming bread lines in the United States.


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