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Ending forever wars must include economic warfare

Sanctions like those imposed on Cuba fail to achieve their stated policy objectives and create misery for millions of innocent people.

Analysis | Middle East

Ending endless war has become an ever-present catchphrase, employed by Republicans and Democrats alike, to appeal to the majority of Americans who wish to see an end to ineffective U.S. wars and adventurism across the world, and better use of their hard-earned tax dollars. But, while we may think of war to mean military incursions, bombs and fighting, there is an aspect to U.S. warfare that is too-often absent from the discussion: economic warfare. 

We have witnessed the consequences of this omission in recent days in the case of Cuba. Battered by U.S. sanctions and the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, Cuba is facing its worst food shortages in 25 years. Like people anywhere in the world, many Cubans took to the streets to express their frustrations both with their economic plight and to protest their government, which has failed to address their grievances.

The idea that sanctions are a benign tool or an alternative to war denies the evidence that plainly shows their destructive impact on ordinary people suffering through economic devastation. Although U.S. government officials routinely talk about human rights and a “rules-based international order,” our sanctions policy and unilateral actions in the face of global condemnation undermine those very tenets. In fact, U.N. experts have argued that U.S. sanctions themselves violate “human rights and the norms of international behavior.” Not only do these policies contradict any claim to moral authority, but they also fail to achieve their stated policy objectives, create immeasurable misery for millions of innocent people, and cause instability in the targeted countries. 

In a rare tweet on foreign policy, President Biden stated, “We stand with the Cuban people,” and cited their “economic suffering.” The irony was not lost on many commentators who observed that only weeks earlier the United States rejected — for the 29th consecutive year — a United Nation’s resolution to end the decades-long U.S. embargo on Cuba that has cost the small-island nation an estimated $144 billion and hampered its ability to combat the pandemic. As the international community overwhelmingly voted to end the embargo in a vote of 184 to 2, only Israel joined the U.S. in support of continuing the now 60-year embargo. 

One has to question the judgement of maintaining the same policy position for six decades despite seeing no change. Since sanctions and warfare go hand in hand, the failure of these policies can lead to calls for military intervention, as we saw in the case of the 2003 invasion of Iraq after a decade of harsh sanctions failed to remove Saddam Hussein from power. Even now in the case of Cuba, there are some hawkish U.S. politicians suggesting airstrikes on the country.

Unfortunately, such lack of logical reasoning pervades our foreign policy. Like Cuba, Iran has been under U.S. sanctions for decades, which have left its government relatively unscathed as millions of ordinary people suffer through the consequences. Though critics of these states may argue that they use sanctions as an excuse to deflect from their own shortcomings, it does not in any way negate the human cost of U.S. sanctions, the fact that sanctions actually enable more corruption, or their failure to deliver on their stated goals. Instead, our sanctions policy continues to be at odds with the values of human rights and international cooperation that we supposedly endorse.

Although Iran came to the negotiating table with the United States in the 2015 Iran Nuclear Deal — a historic diplomatic breakthrough that promised Iran sanctions relief for allowing strict oversight of its civilian nuclear program — under the Trump administration the U.S. quickly reverted back to its more common pressure-only strategy. Again, this policy led to increased tensions and brought the United States to the brink of war with Iran. While President Biden was a staunch critic of Trump’s Iran policy and promised to restore the deal as a candidate, his administration has yet to take concrete steps to return to the deal or lift the sanctions that Biden himself acknowledged were impeding Iran’s ability to fight the pandemic. 

Not surprisingly, instead of facilitating cooperation these policies have hardened Iranian attitudes and ushered in a less engagement-friendly administration in Tehran. Again, the international community supported and tried to save the nuclear deal, as the U.S. flexed its unmatched power to single handedly prevent Iran from seeing any sanctions relief and to smash its economy, forcing millions of Iranians into poverty. That the U.S. increased sanctions during a pandemic, and the Biden administration has not lifted those sanctions after six months in office, is another point of departure with the international community, which has emphasized the need to lift sanctions and pursue the cooperative measures required to combat this global issue.

The idea of an international community was created in the wake of World War II with the central aim of resolving conflicts and preventing the scourge of war. As such, ending forever wars is a global enterprise in which the U.S. plays a critical role. However, the obstinate refusal to modify our policies can be seen in our persistent use of military and economic power to force other countries to submit, rather than cooperate.

From the 2003 invasion of Iraq to the Cuban embargo and the reimposition of sanctions on Iran after President Trump quit the nuclear deal, the U.S. continues to use its might with little regard for human consequences, even in the face of global censure. But the United States must recognize that it is impossible to uphold the idea of a rules-based international order while unilaterally violating its mandates, and it is impossible to end forever wars as long as we do not recognize that economic strangulation is indeed warfare. 

A woman looks at the almost empty shelves while she looks for groceries and goods in a supermarket in Caracas, Venezuela March 23, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
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