America’s Overuse of the Sanctions Option

America’s use of economic sanctions to punish various foreign adversaries has grown so promiscuous that U.S. businesses often don’t know when they might be crossing some legal line, thus inflicting financial pain not only on other countries but on the U.S. economy, notes ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

The roots and manifestations of American exceptionalist thinking go way back. One of those manifestations is the use of economic measures as a weapon intended to coerce or deny. The specific thinking involved is that such measures employed by the United States, and even the United States alone, should be enough to induce or force change in other countries.

The thinking is solipsistic insofar as it centers narrowly on the idea of American will and the exercise of American power and, as too often has been the case, pays insufficient attention either to the other nation’s motivations or to what damage or denial the United States is inflicting on itself.

President Barack Obama talks with Secretary of State John Kerry and National Security Advisor Susan E. Rice in the Oval Office on March 19, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Barack Obama talks with Secretary of State John Kerry and National Security Advisor Susan E. Rice in the Oval Office on March 19, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

More than two centuries ago the young American republic made one of its first big attempts at such economic warfare. The Embargo Act of 1807 shut down U.S. overseas trade in an attempt to get the warring European powers Britain and France to respect U.S. neutrality.

President Thomas Jefferson’s intentions were honorable in that he genuinely sought neutrality in the European war, unlike so many today who, if they see an armed conflict going on somewhere in the world, believe it necessary for the United States to take sides even if there are bad guys on more than one side. Jefferson also saw the embargo as an alternative to war rather than a prelude to it, unlike many today, who are both sanctions hawks and military hawks.

But the embargo was a miserable failure on all counts. Prosecuting war in Europe with all means available was much more important to Britain and France than was anything that the American republic could do to them.

The economic damage to the United States was severe, especially in New England, which sank into depression. And the United States would eventually wind up going to war anyway, against Britain in 1812. Realizing the mistake, Jefferson signed a repeal of the embargo in the closing days of his presidency in 1809.

With the American economy and American power having expanded over the subsequent 200 years, the temptation to think in terms of American denial of trade being an all-powerful tool has become all the greater. But the thinking is still erroneous, as demonstrated by the miserable failure of the half-century-old embargo against Cuba. That embargo has caused no favorable change in Cuban policies or politics, and probably has only retarded what change would have been taking place for other reasons.

Economically it has not caused another depression in New England, but the fact that it has been a negative for the U.S. economy is reflected in support by U.S. business interests, as represented by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, for change in policy toward Cuba. President Barack Obama deserves credit for bringing about as much change as it is in his power to effect, but the embargo itself will not come down until the U.S. Congress displays changed thinking too.

The President also deserves similar credit for a redirection of policy on Iran, but there also is a similar solipsistic, sanctions-happy attitude in Congress that applies to Iran. That attitude persists despite the substantial damage to the U .S. economy from those sanctions, the years of a sanctions-centered approach having failed to achieve any positive results until there was also engagement and negotiation, and the self-contradictory nature of the stated purposes for keeping those sanctions in place.

The obsessive persistence of this attitude (besides, to be sure, the malign influence of other factors, such as an oppose-anything-Obama-does mindset) is demonstrated by Republican presidential candidates, including the just-declared Marco Rubio, saying that they would, if elected president, re-impose whatever sanctions had been suspended or lifted in accordance with any agreement on the Iranian nuclear program.

The biggest question about such a pledge is why, if Iran had by that time complied for three years with severe restrictions on its program, any U.S. president would want to demolish all those restrictions on the Iranian program (because that’s what deal-killing sanctions would do) and allow the Iranians to expand their nuclear activities as fast as they wanted.

The further question about the sanctions themselves is how they could be expected to have any effect at all when the United States would be clearly responsible for killing the deal and when the rest of the world, operating under a new United Nations resolution, would have moved on toward doing normal business with Iran.

The rest of the world includes our closest European allies, as Britain and France, among others, would help to write another chapter in America’s unflattering history of ill-advised economic warfare. The United States would be left as lonely and feckless as it has been with the embargo against Cuba.

If even Thomas Jefferson screwed up on this subject, perhaps it’s too much to expect today’s politicians to do much better, although they do have a lot more national experience to go on. And Jefferson realized his mistake and corrected it much more quickly than what we’ve seen happening in Congress on Cuba and Iran.

Oh, and there’s that issue about the danger of war. Given the way the Iranian nuclear issue has been playing out, the risk of a war occurring in the wake of a destruction by the United States of the negotiated agreement on the subject is probably even greater than the risk that impressment of seamen and other maritime issues posed leading up to war in 1812.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

7 comments for “America’s Overuse of the Sanctions Option

  1. Joe L.
    April 16, 2015 at 17:23

    Well for me, I think that the overuse of sanctions is pushing the rest of the world together to create an alternate system, which I believe will ultimately lead to the US losing the reserve currency and hegemony over the rest of the world. We can already see it with China and Russia moving much closer together after sanctions were imposed on Russia. Also, looking at a history of countries who have had sanctions against them, such as India, Iran, Cuba, Venezuela and a whole mess of different countries is leading to alternatives in the financial system – such as alternative to the IMF/World Bank (BRICS Development Bank), an alternative to SWIFT (such as Russia/China are creating) etc. If we are frank, really the United States (and some other western nations) deserve to have sanctions against it especially when it is breaking international law such as the illegal invasion of Iraq and illegal invasion of Syria etc. I am Canadian, and Canada also deserves sanctions against it for recently invading Syria without invitation by the Syrian Government which I believe ultimately violates the UN Charter, Article 2(4).

    I have a feeling that once there are alternatives to the “western dominated” financial system that western hegemony over the rest of the world will be broken and they will remember how the west has treated them time and again (sanctions killing 1/2 Million children in Iraq etc.).

    • Peter Loeb
      April 18, 2015 at 05:25


      In his comment “Joe L.” sums up perceptive views. The US can no longer rule its “Empire”
      with altruistic hegemony. Long ago I predicted that if the sanctions on Iran were not
      lifted, Iran would go elsewhere. If possible. And that elsewhere is apparently the Russia-China coalitions. In the West one is taught to look down on these “Communist” nations.
      Perhaps that arrogance was possible —a stretch even then— because they were not
      “democratic”. Like Israel, for example. The West spoke frivolously about the”cold war”
      while Joyce and Gabriel Kolko wrote otherwise (THE LIMITS OF POWER…) with “SCO”
      (Shanghai Cooperative Organization about which no one in the West speaks (SCO
      includes nations from half the planet) we have never grown from the notion of China as “the ever-poverty-stricken sick man” to a dominant world power. Whether Iran will find a home in the East cannot be predicted at this time. It’s fashionable for liberals and others to hate China and Russia. These views have been nurtured for many decades of fabricated
      patriotism (Kolkos, op cit). The US, by the way, was never out front in criticizing our
      ally Russia until it became convenient for domestic reasons (to get money for the
      Marshall plan, to get funds for the military from an otherwise recalcitrant US Congress
      etc.) During the War Stalin was ?”Uncle Joe” in the West.

      Since the US is making more weapons than it needs (to keep at least some youths in
      employment and to profit corporate boards) and then often giving them away or
      selling them at large discounts, perhaps we could bomb China and Russia simultaneously.

      I doubt that would be wise strategy although it would get rid of weaponry whose primary
      purpose was to employ young servicemen and women in someone’s political area.

      —-Peter Loeb, Boston, MA, USA

  2. Mrk
    April 16, 2015 at 10:44

    Which is why economic sanctions were supposed to be the domain of the United Nations, so that economic warfare didn’t turn into actual warfare.

    Talk about rogue nations – but then all nations have been hijacked by the oligarchs. And that is the solution – taking away their wealth by taking public (sounds nicer than nationalizing) the biggest oil companies and banks, and breaking up the monopolies in all other industries too.

  3. Joe B
    April 16, 2015 at 05:53

    Economic coercion is the principal modern means of war, and should be considered war. Most modern military action has economic damage as its object, at least since the US Civil War, considering that to be the fundamental weapon of the other side.

    The corollary to that is that economic control of US democracy, by oligarchy funding of mass media and elections, is making war upon the United States, the definition of treason in our Constitution. Not only do we need constitutional amendments to restrict such funding to limited individual donations, those who give more should be imprisoned as traitors. If we do not, we surrender the nation without defense.

  4. Tom Welsh
    April 15, 2015 at 17:00

    “…even if there are bad guys on more than one side”.

    It’s depressing to see such an intelligent, informed and enlightened writer use such terminology. The whole idea that there are “good guys” and “bad guys” is simplistic Hollywood nonsense. Alexandr Solzhenitsyn dismissed that foolish notion in “The Gulag Archipelago”, but unfortunately it seems that hardly anyone was paying attention. “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds,” he wrote, “and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being”. That is one of the truest and most important things ever said. Even the best people are capable of evil deeds, while the worst of people have some good in them – sometimes surprisingly much good. We find it dreadfully hard to admit that, because our ape instincts urge us to hate and despise those who are not of “our group”, and unconditionally admire and support those who are.

  5. April 15, 2015 at 13:08

    Reuters has just reported that Obama will sign a bill making its way through congress that allows congress to veto any lifting of its previously imposed sanctions on Iran after congress sees the final agreement.

    Iran has said there is no agreement unless sanctions are lifted simultaneously with its signing the agreement.

    • Rubicon
      April 15, 2015 at 15:45

      Once again, Obama caves to D.C neo-con, pro-Israeli government power. So go ahead – nullify the proposal. Meantime, the world is slowly moving away from American military/financial hegemony – AIIB, EU leaders trying to stem the tide against Nuland’s Ukraine while hatred against American power multiplies throughout the world.

    • Peter Loeb
      April 16, 2015 at 06:17


      Thanks to Paul Pillar and also to commenter John Puma. (I have seen this coming and
      noted it again in my comment to RayMcGovern’s articleof April 14. My comment to the
      McGovern article was titled SENATE KILL IRAN ‘POTENTIAL FRAMEWORK'”

      Your reference to the article from Reuters says essentially the same thing. Everyone
      should read it.

      —-Peter Loeb, Boston, MA, USA

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