Chuck Spinney: Sanctions — A Strategy For When You Are Out of Altitude, Airspeed, and Ideas With Andrew Cockburn’s “A Very Perfect Instrument: The Ferocity and Failure of America’s Sanction Apparatus”

Officers Call
Chuck Spinney
Chuck Spinney

Obama’s climbdown in Syria, the election of a moderate Iranian president Hasan Rouhani, and the resurgence of Russian influence in the Middle East, have increased Israeli fears of a US accommodation with Iran. The Israelis, together with their wholly own neo-con subsidiaries in Congress, the thinktanks, and the mainstream media, are turning up the pressure for an intensification of the economic sanctions on Iran. Sanction are an act of belligerence, but do they work to reduce conflict?

Attached to this email in pdf format is a timely analysis of the ineffectiveness of sanctions. This important report, A Very Perfect Instrument: The ferocity and failures of America’s sanction Apparatus (Harpers, Sept 2013, pp. 50-57), was written by my good friend Andrew Cockburn and is in the September issue of Harpers.

Andrew’s essay can be thought of as a bookend to his equally searing analysis of the effects of the sanctions we imposed on Iraq between August 1990 and May 2003 (London Review of Books, July 2010).

As Andrew shows, there is an unthinking brutality implicit in the primitive OODA Loops governing a sanctions strategy. Sanctions are grounded on the crude idea of using slow strangulation as a means to impose one’s will on an adversary. Sanctions not only affect the minds of the besieged, but as Andrews shows below, the punishment caused by the physical effects on the besieged blows back to debilitate the mental operations and the moral values of the besieger. He also shows that the corruption of the besieger’s OODA loops is by no means a new phenomenon in the sordid history of sanctions. In 2010, Andrew summarized the effects of the Iraqi sanctions strategy on the besieger’s mind (i.e., the United States) with the following passage:

“In 1996, the 60 Minutes correspondent Lesley Stahl interviewed Madeleine Albright, then US Ambassador to the UN. Albright maintained that sanctions had proved their value because Saddam had made some admissions about his weapons programmes and had recognised the independence of Kuwait (he did this in 1991, right after the war). Asked whether this was worth the death of half a million children, Albright replied: ‘We think the price is worth it.’”

Worth it? What kind of warped OODA loop would produce such a despicable sense of right and wrong? Her thinking about the effectiveness of the death and destruction wrought by the Iraqi sanctions in the 1990s was not sufficient to prevent the U.S. leaders from using trumped up evidence on Saddam’s weapons programs to justify its invasion of Iraq in 2003. Albright’s syrupy self-referential mentality prompts one to ask if she believes perpetual civil war now in Iraq as a result of our subsequent actions (see this report for an example of a day in today’s Iraq) was also “worth it.”

Such simplistic thinking should come as no surprise, because sanctions are merely a rehash of the oldest and most primitive form of war: blockade or siege. They reflect a contemporary strategic mentality that usually occurs when the attacker has vastly superior military and economic power, but is out of ideas on how to use that superior power to impose his will on his adversary. In the case of the United States — a hyper-capitalist consumer society — sanctions are also self-referential in the sense that they project our obsessive materialistic values onto our adversary, while ignoring the obvious moral effects our sieges create (e.g., see Andrew’s last few paragraphs in his Harpers essay).

To be sure, leakproof blockades and starvation are the surest forms of war. If a blockade is leakproof and can be sustained, the result is inevitable. But, it is also the most expensive and messiest strategy, because sieges are slow, and from the point of view of the besieged’s OODA loops, sanctions are easy to comprehend and are predictable. The besieged that devise tactics to mitigate the effects of blockade to increase the time and cost of the siege. Economic sanctions take even more time (think Cuba) than a purely military blockade, because they are more porous; and as Andrew shows below, they produce an extended regime of brutal collective punishment that dehumanizes the besieger. This dehumanization is evident in the absurd rationalizations documented by Andrew in his Harpers essay. They are no less out of touch with reality than Madeleine Albright’s obscene view of dead children. Albright, I might add, is still a respected graybeard in the Hall of Mirrors that is Versailles on the Potomac!

Moreover, sanctions are sometimes accompanied by a blowback taking the form of unintended moral effects that tend to weaken the resolve of the “victorious” besieger and strengthen that or the besieged (or his martyrdom — e.g., remember the Alamo), thereby sowing the seeds of revenge or continued resistance that continue conflict into the future (e.g., like the sanctions imposed on Germany after WWI).

To make matters worse, economic sanctions are usually very inefficient, because they are a very weak form of blockade and are always accompanied by leaks and work arounds.

With these limitations in mind, I urge you to read Andrew’s important analysis of Iranian sanctions and ask yourself if this is any way for the United States to run a sensible Grand Strategy that ends a conflict on favorable terms that do not sow the seeds of future conflict. (For new readers, the criteria of a sensible grand strategy are described here.)

Failure of Sanctions – Andrew Cockburn