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Sanctions are the one thing Republicans and Democrats can agree on. But they aren't working.

Enacting sanctions is as second nature for Washington policy types as giving remarks at a think-tank or writing an op-ed for the Washington Post.

Analysis | Washington Politics

On a good day, Washington, D.C. is best described as a town divided. Republicans and Democrats are at each other´s throats on nearly every issue under the sun. A subject as seemingly uncontroversial as wearing a mask can open the floodgates to a torrential flood of partisan fury on both sides of the political aisle. The culture wars, policy disagreements, and ideological clashes are elevated to the umpteenth degree during a presidential election year.

But on the subject of economic sanctions, Republicans and Democrats mirror one, big, happy family. Indeed, it´s difficult to think of another topic that has the ability to pull Capitol Hill into the same tent. To use an imperfect analogy, sanctions are for the Beltway what candy is to hyperactive 8-year-old — the more, the better.

Unfortunately, the opposite is very often the case. Just as candy can rot a child's teeth from the inside, sanctions have a habit of making difficult problems around the world even worse. They cause unintended harm to the most vulnerable populations. And more importantly from the standpoint of U.S. foreign policy, overusing this financial tool can establish a slippery slope to a mentality in U.S. policymaking circles where eliciting economic pain becomes an end in itself.   

It´s not a surprise why U.S. policymakers and lawmakers find economic sanctions so appealing. As the clearinghouse for so much of the trade and commerce that transits the international system on a daily basis, the United States possesses an extensive amount of leverage over any business entity or financial institution seeking new markets. The U.S. dollarization of the world's reserve currency provides Washington with powers no other country on the planet enjoys. There is no faster way for a business to lose clients or ruin its reputation than to engage in transactions the U.S. Treasury Department labels unacceptable. No bank wants to be on the receiving end of a multibillion dollar fine for skirting U.S. sanctions laws. Financial institutions are therefore constantly attuned to U.S. sanctions policies to ensure they preserve their access to the international banking system. 

Thus, lawmakers and executive branch officials increasingly view sanctions as a seemingly immaculate policy response, a metaphorical magic wand that will ice out adversaries and force them to change their behavior. Hardly a week goes by when the U.S. Treasury and State Departments don't issue a press release announcing more sanctions against a foreign target. On October 9, the Trump administration sanctioned two top Nicaraguan officials for allegations of corruption and human rights abuses. A day earlier, Washington labeled 18 Iranian banks off-limits, all but blacklisting Iran´s entire banking industry. The State Department tightened its previous sanctions measures against the Russian-German Nord Stream II natural gas pipeline on October 20, hoping the threat of being locked out of the U.S. banking system would persuade the vessels and insurance companies to withdraw from the project. Even the International Criminal Court is not immune; Fatou Bensouda, the ICC´s chief prosecutor, saw her U.S. bank account frozen after she opened up a war crimes case against U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. 

The Obama administration made extensive use of secondary sanctions, whereby a third-party could be blocked from business in the U.S. if it engaged in dealings with an entity already placed on Washington´s sanctions list. But the Trump administration has broadened the scope of this tactic to the point of issuing threats to allies and partners bold enough to even think about doing business with governments it considers adversarial. In the latest example of this trend, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted on October 18 that any nation — including those in Western Europe — engaging in an arms deal with Iran would be susceptible to U.S. financial restrictions. The tenacity with which the Trump administration has enforced sanctions on the books is unprecedented; in its first three years, there have been 3,210 additions to the Treasury Department´s sanctions list.

In many instances, Democrats on Capitol Hill have been supportive of additional sanctions authorities. Congressional Democrats were instrumental in passing the Caesar Civilian Protection Act, a comprehensive sanctions law that penalizes foreign entities anywhere in the world for assisting Syria´s post-war reconstruction. Sen. Robert Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, remains a vocal and proud proponent of passing additional sanctions on the Maduro government. High-profile Democrats are currently advocating for sanctions against Turkey for operating the Russian S-400 missile defense system. And while Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has said he would lift sanctions against Iran if Tehran returned to full compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, his campaign team also insists that squeezing the North Korean, Russian, and Syrian economies are key components in pressuring Pyongyang, Moscow, and Damascus into fundamentally changing their foreign policies.  

Enacting a sanctions designation is as second nature for Washington policy types as giving remarks at a think-tank or writing an op-ed for the Washington Post. The effectiveness of sanctions in terms of achieving U.S. policy goals, however, is rarely discussed with openness and honesty. 

Economically, U.S. financial restrictions can have devastating impacts on governments unfortunate enough to be on the receiving end of them. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani stated that Iran´s losses have totaled $150 billion since the Trump administration instituted its “maximum pressure” campaign. With foreign buyers shying away from touching Venezuelan crude oil, Caracas is hemorrhaging cash. The Syrian government is an international financial pariah in large part due to the Caesar Act and will continue to be an off-limits jurisdiction for any foreign firm that wants to do business in the United States. 

Yet none of the sanctions have produced substantive policy shifts in any of those governments — nor have they pushed the leaders of those same governments to negotiate away their own power. Iran's low-enriched uranium stockpile is ten times larger today than it was before Washington's pressure strategy was adopted. If anything, U.S. sanctions have convinced Tehran to double down on the very foreign policy the U.S. is trying to change. U.S. designations of Venezuela's oil and banking sectors may be stretching Maduro's coffers thin, but they also exacerbating an economic disaster that is already the worst in Latin American history. Maduro is using the U.S. campaign against him to consolidate his authority, ostracize the Venezuelan opposition, and provide criminal elements with the opportunity to get rich in the informal economy. In Syria, Bashar al-Assad remains in power and has demonstrated no willingness to contemplate a diminution of his political authority — let alone negotiate his own departure. In the meantime, the Syrian people are forced to do what they can to survive.

Bottom line, dumbing down every foreign policy problem into one that can be sanctioned into a solution is more myth than reality. And yet despite all the evidence available, the Beltway continues to use the blunt force of America's financial power as a crutch to the exclusion of other policy tools such as pragmatic diplomacy. Republicans and Democrats alike are to blame for this phenomenon, even if President Trump has taken it to another level.

None of this is to say sanctions should not be a tool in the U.S. foreign policy toolkit. In some cases, slapping a visa ban, an asset freeze, or a trade impediment on a target can indeed work. The most recent illustration was the decision by the Trump administration in 2018 to sanction the Turkish defense and interior ministers for the arrest and trial of U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson. Confronted with the prospect of severe economic distress, Ankara concluded the costs of keeping Brunson in Turkish custody were simply too high. 

The Brunson case, however, was largely unimportant to the Turks and certainly not worth the trouble to its relationship with the United States. Washington's demand was also specific and reasonable: release this unjustly detained U.S. citizen. None of this can be about U.S. demands on the Iranian, Venezuelan, Syrian, and North Korean governments, all of which are being ordered to either drastically reform their foreign policies to Washington's liking or move aside.

Whoever happens to be the next president of the United States come January 21, 2021, it's highly likely economic sanctions will remain a popular tool. Republican and Democratic lawmakers in both houses of Congress will continue to file and debate bills that strengthen existing sanctions authorities or propose entirely new ones.

Popularity aside, the U.S. foreign policy community won't witness much success if it doesn't attach these sanctions to objectives that are reasonable and achievable.

President Donald J. Trump displays his signature on an Executive Order to place further sanctions on Iran Monday, June 24, 2019, in the Oval Office of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Joyce N. Boghosian)President Donald J. Trump displays his signature on an Executive Order to place further sanctions on Iran Monday, June 24, 2019, in the Oval Office of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Joyce N. Boghosian)
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