Collective Punishment Is Washington’s Default Policy

The Biden administration’s decision to take half of Afghanistan’s frozen reserves and keep them for the families of 9/11 victims is just the latest in a series of policy decisions that impose collective punishment on tens of millions of innocent people for the actions of others. Biden’s decision to rob the Afghan people of billions of dollars of their own money in the middle of a man-made humanitarian crisis has been widely denounced as "unconscionable" and cruel, and it is, but it is unfortunately entirely in keeping with the way that the US has treated many countries in the last thirty years. Collective punishment has practically become the default response to smaller states whose governments have done things Washington opposes or when the US refuses to recognize their governments as legitimate.

Whether it is "maximum pressure" campaigns against Iran and Venezuela, Caesar Act sanctions on Syria, sanctions on Afghanistan, or a possible terrorist designation of the Houthis in Yemen, the US threatens to inflict or inflicts widespread economic harm on entire nations in vain efforts to compel major changes in countries where the US has minimal or no influence. The US has also supported the Saudi coalition as it has waged a ruthless economic war on Yemen with the blockade and a cutoff of salaries to public sector workers. In every case, the US claims to be striking against the targeted governments, but these policies always end up impoverishing and starving ordinary people. The people that have no real say over how their governments act are made to pay the price for their leaders’ conduct.

Almost all the targeted countries have suffered and are still suffering from war, starvation, and disease, and in all of them US policies have made conditions much worse than they would otherwise be. These punitive policies form a pattern of abuse against weaker nations that the US engages in as a matter of course. The victims of these policies are rarely, if ever, acknowledged in Washington, which makes it much easier politically for US policymakers to approve of using collective punishment against the next target.

Furthermore, US policymakers make a point of denying any responsibility for the harm that their preferred policies have done to the people in these countries. When Francisco Rodriguez questioned Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Brian Nichols earlier this month about the destructive effects of US sanctions on the Venezuelan economy, Nichols responded with a flat-out rejection: "I don’t accept the premise that our sanctions are responsible for the suffering of average Venezuelans." The US wages relentless economic war on other countries, but then pretends that the casualties of that war are caused by everything except the economic war.

What needs to be understood about these policies is that economic warfare is collective punishment by design. Whatever their leaders have done or been accused of doing, the people suffering additional hardships are not responsible for those decisions and have no power to change them in any case. US policymakers may think that by immiserating the population they are undermining the targeted government, but experience has shown just the opposite to be true. By attacking entire economies, the US makes itself the enemy of ordinary people in one country after another, and it predictably earns the enmity of those people. The targeted governments entrench themselves further and use the crisis created by sanctions to their advantage.

The humanitarian exemptions and carve-outs in US sanctions policies typically don’t work very well. Even when they have worked, they are simply inadequate to meeting the needs of a population when the rest of their economy is wrecked by contraction and inflation. Once the US has succeeded in crippling a country’s economy and making it unable to function, offering a pittance of humanitarian aid through a few limited channels can’t do very much to help the tens of millions of people in need. As Aziz Amin recently explained about the crisis in Afghanistan, "Humanitarian aid alone cannot stave off the looming crisis. The country needs a functioning economy and a strong banking sector to sustain itself. Injecting aid to prevent the Afghan currency from depreciating further is not a durable solution." The same is true in the other countries under broad US sanctions.

Ending the war in Afghanistan ought to have meant an end to US policies causing the preventable deaths of innocent Afghans, but because of asset freezes, asset theft, and sanctions that is not what is happening now. Instead, we see that economic warfare might kill more people in just one year than perished in twenty years of armed conflict. If US policies usher in a famine in Afghanistan, it will be an unforgivable crime.

If the US is to truly be at peace with other nations, it must renounce the weapons of economic warfare and stop abusing its privileged position at the expense of tens of millions of innocent people all over the world.

Daniel Larison is a contributing editor and weekly columnist for and maintains his own site at Eunomia. He is former senior editor at The American Conservative. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.