Sanctions in the Time of Temper Tantrums

by Enrico Carisch, PassBlue
October 7, 2018

John Bolton, whose white hair betrays the wisdom that a national security adviser to President Donald Trump should bring to his job, has threatened United States sanctions against judges of the International Criminal Court for adjudicating alleged war crimes committed by American forces in Afghanistan.

However, frantic threats and hysterical big-power strutting does not substitute for actual policymaking and conflict settlement. This fact seems not only lost on Bolton but on many other international policymakers. The problematic corollary is that their persistent distractions deter from them solving the tremendous humanitarian and security crises in Yemen, Libya and South Sudan, as well as the problematic presidential elections coming up in the Democratic Republic of Congo in December and the transition to peaceful democracy in the Central African Republic.

In another example of recent threats of sanctions-posturing, when Canada’s foreign affairs ministry expressed concern in a tweet about the arrest of the women’s rights activist Samar Badawi and others by authorities of Saudi Arabia, that country’s foreign affairs ministry responded by freezing all new business and investment transactions with Canada “while retaining its right to take further action,” according to the official Saudi Press Agency.

None of these contests over sanctions, however, match the gaudy fight between Russia and the US. While Russia’s countersanctions against Western leaders putter on with little noticeable impact, American sanctions keep escalating, as a Russian cartoonist, Sergey Elkin, satirized on Sept. 10. It showed President Putin listening to a phone recording, saying, “To hear the latest about US sanctions, dial 1.”

In the US Congress, a total of three sanctions bills are under consideration: the Defending American Security from Kremlin Aggression Act (Daskaa), the Defending Elections From Threats by Establishing Redlines Act (Deter) and the Energy Security Cooperation With Allied Partners in Europe Act of 2018.

Senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina), apparently Congress’s foremost foreign policy expert, is sponsoring the Daskaa legislation, which he calls the “bill from hell.” He wants to restrict Russia’s ability to raise debt and to target state banks, oligarchs and political figures who allegedly support Putin. Others in Congress are pushing for Russia to be designated by the US State Department “as a state sponsor of terrorism.”

Under executive orders from President Trump, the US Treasury Department now targets Russian shipping firms for trading oil with North Korea. It also maintains broad economic restrictions against Russian government institutions and Russian oligarchs because of Russia’s occupation of Crimea and support of insurgents in eastern Ukraine; for meddling in the 2016 US elections; and for allegedly poisoning an ex-Russian spy, Sergei Scribal, and his daughter in Salisbury, England.

The international response to the nerve-agent poisonings in Salisbury is being used by State Department officials and Congressional representatives to consider whether Russians could be sanctioned under the 1991 Chemical and Biological Weapons Control and Warfare Elimination Act. Yet, the State Department’s intentions did not come up in Trump’s Sept. 26 nonproliferation sermon to the UN Security Council, in which he said, “If the righteous many do not confront the wicked few, then evil will triumph,” omitting Russia in the speech and instead focusing on Iran and North Korea.

The power plays by big nations have one common denominator: the threats are not meant to resolve conflicts but simply to assert dominance — or appear to the public to assert dominance. The threats ignore the No. 1 lesson in sanctions policies: that without strong political will, potentially backed up by a credible warning of force, they do not change behavior. By failing to embed sanctions into a broad political program, puffed-up ones make conflicts irrational and even more dangerous.

This position is shared by 53 bipartisan US foreign policy leaders of past administrations who are part of the National Coalition to Prevent an Iranian Nuclear Weapon, a voluntary organization. In an open statement, they point out, among other shortcomings, “The Administration’s emphasis on coercion and threats of military action without diplomatic engagement provides no exit ramp to avoid collision.”

The potential for such a collision has now reached a dramatic juncture, when the second tranche of restrictions by the US against Iran comes into force in early November. The expectation by the Trump administration that countries around the world will stop importing Iranian oil and gas is moving into treacherous territory. Either Iran will carry out a desperate strike against global energy supplies by shutting down the Strait of Hormuz, or, in the likely absence of compliance, the US will play hardball with such major powers as China, India and perhaps even allies like Japan or South Korea, who are all dependent on Iranian oil for their economic well-being.

Pouring more oil into the Iranian fire, Bolton told The Associated Press that US troops will stay in Syria “as long as Iranian troops are outside Iranian borders and that includes Iranian proxies and militias.” The statement, which contradicts Trump’s goal of pulling US troops from Syria as soon as possible, prompted even the Washington Examiner, a conservative publication, to wonder whether Bolton is hijacking Trump’s Syria policy.

Bolton, a member of the State Department’s Iran Action Group, Trump’s “whole-of-government effort to change the Iranian regime’s behavior,” should be well versed in the president’s policy de jour on Iran. Taking his words on full value, Bolton understands how putting US troops in close proximity to the approximately 10,000 Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps combatants operating in Syria, is risking direct armed confrontation.

The potential clash raises the troubling specter that the sanctions tantrums by the US government are not puffed up but, as Joe Cirincione, the president of the Ploughshares Fund, believes, “Trump’s March to War with Iran.”

This article first appeared on PassBlue and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.