In recent years, the U.S. government has turned starvation into official policy. Determined to force hostile states to bend to its will, Washington increasingly imposes economic sanctions, using America’s financial dominance to penalize foreign individuals, companies, and even governments. The Trump administration turned starving already impoverished peoples into a fine art.
Among its prime targets were Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Syria, and Venezuela. The objective was to wreak economic destruction – and the policy succeeded in that sense. These nations all suffered increased hardship. Yet the people who suffered the most were at the bottom economically. Regime elites usually lost some access to excess, including foreign bank accounts and the luxuries which depended on those funds. But everyone else struggled to feed themselves.
Moreover, in not one case did the Trump administration achieve its political ends. Communists, including nominally retired Raul Castro, still run Cuba. Tehran refused to surrender its foreign policy to Washington. North Korea’s Kim Jong-un did not make his nuclear weapons available for transport to the US In Syria Bashar al-Assad refused to yield power. So, too, Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro. Washington 0, Rogue States 5.
Washington’s policy was a bust. The countries varied in important ways, yet the US failed to prevail in even one instance. Washington imposed enormous human hardship on all five, but none buckled.
Consider Syria, which remains divided, occupied, and ravaged after a decade of civil war. US forces illegally occupy around a third of the country, at times confronting Syrian soldiers, whose territory it is, Russian and Iranian forces, there at the invitation of the legal government, and Turkish personnel, operating illegally against Kurdish militias tied to the US President Donald Trump justified the administration’s illicit role as necessary to seize Syria’s oil, which he hoped to steal and sell. Seriously.
What could possibly go wrong with such a strategy?
The Obama administration began by attempting to oust Assad, which failed miserably. Alleged "moderate" insurgents turned out to be in short supply, many defecting or surrendering to more radical groups after being trained and armed by the US. One Pentagon program spent a half billion dollars to put fewer than three score fighters in the field, most of whom were promptly killed or captured. US equipment ended up in the hands of the local affiliate of al-Qaeda, the group that Washington purported to be combating everywhere else on earth. Unsurprisingly, religious minorities, who were murdered, kidnapped, raped, displaced, or otherwise abused in the sectarian conflict triggered by America’s invasion of Iraq, generally backed Assad as the best and perhaps only barrier to a repeat performance in Syria.
The Trump administration maintained its course in part through deceit and deception. "Never-Trumper" turned Trump ambassador James Jeffrey acknowledged misleading the president and public about the number of US forces stationed in Syria, following in the footsteps prior administrations. "We were always playing shell games," he explained, apparently without shame. Such is how the Washington war party deserves the American people.
Having failed in its effort to oust Assad militarily, Congress and the administration decided on a back-up course: they would starve the Syrian people. The country already was under sanctions, but these restrictions had not brought the entire economy to a halt. So in late 2019 Congress – in which nearly all 535 members imagine themselves as unofficial secretaries of state – approved the ironically named Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act. The measure took effect last June. As has become common, Washington applied its rules to everyone else on the planet, effectively cutting Syria off from much of the world economy. Foreigners began fleeing the Syrian market before they took effect. Observed the Washington Post: "they have already contributed to the collapse of Syria’s long-troubled economy."
Alas, the purpose of the measure was both clear and cruel: to impoverish the Syrian people and prevent reconstruction of their country. Jeffrey was refreshingly honest in admitting that sanctions were intended to hurt Russians, not help Syrians: "My job is to make it a quagmire for the Russians." The Syrian people were but a convenient means to an administration policy end. If that meant prolonging their suffering even after the guns had stopped firing, so be it.
Indeed, such callousness long has cloaked US policy. Far from being a humane substitute for war, economic sanctions impose some of the worst impacts of conflict on civilians. Nor have American officials hesitated to accept even heavy collateral casualties. Madeleine Albright is responsible for a string of arrogant and thoughtless comments on foreign policy. Perhaps her most famous gaffe – that is, telling an inconvenient truth – was her response to a question about the death of a half million Iraqi babies due to sanctions: "We think the price is worth it," she said. That extraordinarily callous attitude evidently persists in Washington today regarding Syria.
In theory, further immiserating Syrians who had managed to survive a hideous decade-long war has a larger purpose. It is supposed to drive Assad from office, or at least get him to agree to a political process that would result in his departure. Just before the measure took effect, an almost breathless Charles Lister of the Middle East Institute suggested the decisive moment had arrived:
"This new and almost unprecedented moment offers America an opportunity. Although it may seem like the Trump administration – and particularly the White House – has paid little attention to Syria, it has an opening now. If it uses its remaining levers to exploit Assad’s newly vulnerable position within an energized diplomatic effort, in concert with our many allies in Europe, the Middle East and elsewhere, it has a chance to usher in real and long-overdue changes to a country that could otherwise become a global tinderbox."
A year has passed since Trump implemented the sanctions. Guess who is still president of Syria, apparently eating and living quite well!
Of course, the idea that punishing Syrian civilians would lead to Assad’s ouster always was ludicrous. Having maintained control after suppressing multiple opposition forces at horrendous human cost, Assad was supposed to quit at the thought of his people suffering at the hands of America. Or the people were supposed to rise again in revolt, after failing in their previous effort and enduring much death and destruction as a result. Or the elite were supposed to overturn the regime, thereby exposing themselves to exile, prison, or death, depending upon events. Or something magical was supposed to happen and Assad would simply disappear.
Sanctions advocates look naïve and stupid if they believed these arguments, or cynical and mean if they did not. There was more than a little defensiveness when a former deputy assistant secretary of state insisted that no criticism should be listened to that did not mention Assad (a bloody, nasty dictator) and Caesar (the pseudonym of the Syrian who documented regime abuses).
However, turnabout is fair play. No defense of sanctions should be considered if the advocate does not acknowledge some important facts. One, that the circumstances surrounding Caesar and his file are murky. Indeed, Human Rights Watch reported that many of the photos were of government soldiers, not detainees, who had been killed, raising questions about his claims. Two, that Syria is not a genocide but civil war, in which multiple factions committed murder and mayhem. The better armed Assad might have been the greater brute, but the US and its allies also backed ruthless killers.
Three, that Syrians backing Assad had legitimate reason to fear U.S.-backed regime change efforts, after the catastrophe in Iraq, in which 400,000 or more civilians were killed and millions more were displaced. Four, that religious minorities, who generally enjoyed peace and stability in both secular Baathist dictatorships, had especially good reason to fear the consequence of another maladroit, murderous US campaign. Five, that by targeting the Assad government the US perversely aided both the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra, the local affiliate of al-Qaeda – which should be remembered as the group responsible for killing more than 3000 Americans on 9/11.
Six, that by arming the Free Syrian Army and bombing the Islamic State, the Western allies encouraged Assad to attack the first and ignore the second. Seven, that Washington currently supports jihadist rule over the Idlib area by al-Nusra, renamed Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which now conveniently claims to be the former al-Qaeda affiliate. Eight, that US bombing in Syria is responsible for multiple civilian deaths: reported the Wall Street Journal, "human rights advocates say that tens of thousands of [US] airstrikes have killed far more noncombatants than the coalition admits." And nine, that the administration is treating desperate Syrians as objects to be used and then discarded as part of Washington’s Great Game against Damascus.
In an attempt to move beyond the civil war, Syria’s onetime Arab enemies have moved toward regularizing relations with Damascus, only to be criticized by the US – by officials safely ensconced thousands of miles away from the chaos and distress they have created. Reflecting Albrightesque arrogance, Joey Hood, acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs, warned America’s allies: "I would also, of course, add that we also have the Caesar Act sanctions. This is a law that has wide bipartisan support in the Congress, and the administration is going to follow the law on that. And so governments and businesses need to be careful that their proposed or envisioned transactions don’t expose them to potential sanctions from the United States under that act." Translation: we will crush even our supposed friends if they don’t obey us.
In a just world, there would be a new, democratic government in Damascus tomorrow. Also in Cairo, Riyadh, Tehran, Abu Dhabi, Ankara, Manama, and in many other nations around the world. However, absent a truly vital interest, and not the passing presidential fancies which are treated as such today, the US should keep its troops at home. So, too, should economic penalties be employed only in the narrowest circumstances, and only for issues of serious interest to America.
Diplomacy should be the main tool with which Washington addresses the world. That might frustrate US officials, since they would lose their ability to play Masters of the Universe. However, America as global dictatress has not delivered the sort of peaceful order that Washington policymakers claim to desire.
Joe Biden ran for president as an advocate of human rights. Yet he, like Trump, has cruelly sacrificed the interests foreign peoples, such as those in Syria, to score political points. America should do better.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. He is a former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan and the author of several books, including Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.