Hot Air

Ilhan Omar: These new Iran sanctions are “economic warfare”

I’m okay with the description although it’s overwrought. Sanctions are popular in modern America because they’re an alternative to warfare. We don’t want to kill so we apply economic pressure instead. But she’s right inasmuch as the goals of true warfare and “economic warfare” are similar, getting an enemy power to bend to our will on a point in dispute.

The continuation of politics by other means, as Clausewitz said.

But if we’re going to treat sanctions as “warfare,” we’ll need to be consistent about it.

Where have I heard sanctions described as “economic warfare” before? Ah, right — that’s the term America’s ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, used back in August to describe the BDS movement — boycott, divest, sanction — championed by … Ilhan Omar.

As a million righties are reminding her on Twitter this afternoon, her attitude towards sanctions on Israel seems curiously different from her attitude towards sanctions on Iran. In the case of Israel, she appears to view sanctions not as “warfare” but as a tool towards a just settlement between Jews and Palestinians. In July, after she filed a resolution in the House defending the BDS movement from criticism by Congress, she announced plans to visit Israel. Not because she seeks war, she stressed, but because she seeks peace:

“We must support an end of the occupation and seek to achieve a two-state solution,” she added. “I believe firmly that the path to peace does not lies with a violent mean. We should condemn in the strongest terms violence that perpetuates the occupation. Whether it’s Israel, Hamas or individuals. We cannot also condemn non-violent means. We cannot simultaneously say we want peace and to oppose peaceful means to hold our allies accountable.”

“Peaceful means to hold our allies accountable,” not “economic warfare.” That seems to be the Omar view of anti-Israel sanctions. But when sanctions are applied to virtually any other country, she’s an outspoken skeptic of their use. She made her position clear in an op-ed for WaPo in October opposing sanctions on Turkey for its invasion of Kurdish-held Syria entitled “Sanctions are part of a failed foreign policy playbook. Stop relying on them.”

In so much of our foreign policy, we rely on muscle memory and a limited toolbox to decide the best course of action. And, too often, sanctions regimes are ill considered, incoherent and counterproductive.

Research has shown that sanctions rarely achieve their desired goals. In the worst-case scenario, they hurt the people of a country — generally the very people we’re purporting to help — without making a dent in the country’s behavior. And in the case of human rights abusers, research suggests that more abuses typically occur with economic sanctions in place than without them.

Sanctions are not meant to be an end in themselves, but we too often use them as a lever without a plan for what comes after, whether they achieve the desired result or not.

She went on to make some exceptions. The Magnitsky Act, which targets individuals, can be useful, she allowed. And so can … boycott and divestment campaigns, as in the case of South Africa. “But economic and sector sanctions are too often designed to inflict maximum pain on civilians, not empower them,” she added — neglecting to explain how Israeli citizens would be spared from serious economic hardship if a global BDS campaign targeting the country got traction.

Does she want “warfare” against Israel or not? How far would she go to make Israelis suffer economically if she had the power to force U.S. sanctions through?

This isn’t the first time a member of the Squad has been challenged for following a double standard in wanting to punish Israel more harshly for its sins than grievous human-rights violators. The irony of Omar’s tweet today is that Trump’s new sanctions really are a form of deescalation, i.e. a deterrent measure in lieu of military action to respond to last night’s missile strikes, and they are part of a strategy whether she likes that strategy or not. U.S. sanctions on Iran have two goals, to bring the regime to the table to renegotiate the nuclear deal and/or, potentially, to weaken the economy to the point where Iranians are inclined towards revolution. As I said elsewhere yesterday, the irony of the present moment is that Trump is probably more politically willing *and able* to reach a grand bargain and permanent detente with Iran than any U.S. president in decades (although many of his advisors surely aren’t enthusiastic). The sanctions aren’t just a matter of him lashing out. If Iran wants to hand him a big diplomatic victory in exchange for economic reprieve, he’ll eagerly take it.

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