Sanctions, the Financial Equivalent of War


Apologies to William James for paraphrasing his famous dictum; and apologies to the world for a combined financial-corporate-military structure of power begging to display its macho capitalism at whatever cost. The ludicrous scene of Obama criticized from the Right as not sufficiently combative toward Russia and Putin, when Obama himself already occupies a position to the Right in the vicinity of Attila the Hun, shows us how far the American political-ideological extant universe has fallen off the spectrum of meaningful democracy and is knocking at the door of utter fascism.

Empty mouthings? Hardly, when one considers the unitary character of US domestic and foreign policy. But why recite all the barbarisms, sell-outs, harm done in fast creating an American underclass simultaneous with, and conjoined to, the aggressive geostrategic design of crippling Russia and China both, and preventing their common action to build an Eurasian bloc to offset American world unilateral supremacy? I wish it were possible to trade Jeremiah for Rosa Luxemburg, but I’m afraid neither would get very far in today’s world.

Let me, then, focus on one comparatively symptomatic, rather than causal, element brought to the foreground the last few days, a preliminary move in Obama’s deliberate confrontation with Russia. Years ago I wrote, if there had not been a Vietnam War, we would have had to invent it. Ukraine fits the same global dynamics; if not occurring (won’t you come into my web, said the spider to the fly), the US surely would have had to invent it—indeed, ANYTHING in order to apply pressure in reducing Russia’s power in the world (along with Obama’s visceral hatred of Putin as a sidelight), even that, as preparatory to doing battle with the ultimate enemy in Washington thinking, China itself. If America can put its stamp on all of Asia, the battle is won—the elimination of all foreseeable challenges to a dominance freely intermixing capitalism and militarism, truly qualifying as Exceptionalism in historical annals, because giving fascism a liberal face.

Sanctions are the lawyerly way to ensure destructiveness, an attempt to bring a people to its knees so that its government, in turn, will follow. Beats “shock and awe” when the other side can effectively respond militarily, even if not satisfying the shock troops of Reaction of the country administering the pressure—and thereby making POTUS seem moderate and a deserving Nobelist. Thus far, Europe seems to be holding back, however, in turning the screws, a condition bound to change either way: US unilateralism shining forth, Europe itself relegated to the sidelines, or, America’s preference, creating sufficient atmospherics and provocations to give Europe no other choice but to enlist in US dominance. (We call that NATO, with prospects of moving to the Russian border conveying a sense of participation in the grand enterprise.)

At the time of writing (Apr. 30), it’s been only three days since the latest offensive began, appropriately and significantly at the time of Obama’s Far Eastern trip; for the broader policy is to treat Russia and China as inseparable, the twin Villains upsetting world order, to which all right-thinking (excuse the pun) nations should and must offer resistance. The New York Times is a useful source for outlining the events (its own reporters providing the material the editorial board then transmogrifies to suit its purposes). Of course, the policy and its rationale have been in the works for some time, the steps, here, beginning with Putin’s demonization, going back a ways and part of the ideological context seen more recently in the conversion of anticommunism to counterterrorism—without losing sight of the former buried still in its mental set—and the whole idea of sanctions as a weapon in the Cold War dating back to Kennedy and Cuba. The object has been and remains to make the people suffer. And if Kennedy be our guide, what does this say about liberalism (a condition that has not changed)? Suffering can be made to appear good, statesmanlike, because falling short of thermonuclear disaster. How nice, protract the death of the people, rather than kill them instantly.

Peter Baker, writing “Sanctions Revive Search for Secret Putin Fortune,” (Apr. 27), is beautiful innuendo, drive a wedge between Russia and its people, or, that failing, speculate on his shadiness as a leader, the next round of sanctions against his friends to smoke him out rather than, for now, attack him directly. A Bush counterterrorism adviser, Juan Zarate, put it like this: “It’s something that could be done that would send a very clear signal of taking the gloves off and not just dance around it.” The whole project is like regime change via incremental steps, and, as follow-up, identifying Putin and Russia as one, thus discrediting Russia as a threat to world peace.

The same day Baker and C.J. Chivers, writing “U.S. Weighs Harder Line on Russia Than European Allies,” (Apr. 27), address the thorny issue of how far to approach sanctions against Russia alone, conversely, “how much emphasis to put on unity with European allies more reluctant to take stronger economic actions against Moscow.” The issue itself highlights the military factor, because sanctions assumes the military follow-up, the outdistancing of Europe here threatening to forestall NATO direct involvement through moving troops and war goods to the Russian border to give sanctions a further edge. Unity is imperative, not only to mobilize force, but also to make the US appear hidden in the crowd, cementing “friends and allies”—the overworked Pentagon/State designation—which provides deniability to the primarily US geopolitical agenda. Cynicism, as well as tension over the right path, can be seen in their description that, rather than waiting for “an undivided front” to take form, “some inside and outside the administration argue that the United States should act unilaterally if necessary, on the assumption that the Europeans will ultimately follow.”

But whether in concert or acting alone, sanctions are not questioned nor is the military factor in giving weight to the policy, the US being determined on confrontation with or without “friends and allies.” It is somewhat ironic that American business, in its quest for global profits and, relatedly, sustained domestic performance and favorable profit rates, should be the ones to urge USG restraint. Baker and Chivers write: “During internal deliberations, Jacob J. Lew, the secretary of the Treasury, and other officials have argued for caution, maintaining that, while action is needed, more expansive measures without European support might hurt American business interests without having the desired impact on Russia, according to people informed about the discussion.” Obama, while still traveling in Asia, stated, using armed sales to Russia (yes, the US was filling military contracts with Russia!) as an example, that if America cut off these sales, “every European defense contractor” would backfill the orders, thereby a policy “not very effective.”

Not surprisingly, Obama’s camp-followers (I use the term advisedly, some of his advisers, like David J. Kramer, head of the CIA-front organization, Freedom House, here) want unilateralism, holding that the US “should move ahead with more decisive action on the theory that Europe wants leadership from Washington and historically joins in eventually.” Kramer: “While imposing sanctions together with the E.U. would be nice, the U.S. simply has to lead and not waste more time trying to present a united approach. It is easier to do so than it is for the Europeans, and they will follow, as long as we lead.”

Kramer is merely a member of the war chorus; Washington seems primed for the Obama Requiem, a hostage crisis of European observers ready for use as pretext for more get-tough sanctions. Predictably, Obama, stopping in Manila to sign a long-term military pact, keeps up the propaganda momentum on further sanctions. Mark Landler and Baker, “Obama Says More Sanctions Against Russia Are Coming,” (Apr. 28), quote POTUS, “’These sanctions represent the next stage in a calibrated effort to change Russia’s behavior.’” And since “’[w]e don’t yet know whether it is going to work,’” Obama’s “calibrated effort” provides the green light for breaking the will to resist, the collective torture rack, of Inquisition-fame, coming vividly to mind (symbolically only, of course).

That he was in the Philippines to negotiate a ten-year agreement “that would give American warships and planes extended access to bases there,” at the same time that he was chastising Putin and Russia, brilliantly illuminates the larger picture: China and Russia as objects of isolation, containment, and a downward power trajectory. Obama to Aquino: “This is going to be a terrific opportunity for us to work with the Philippines, to make sure our navies, our air forces are coordinating.” Obama proves himself an effective multitasker: Russia and China kept separate, the better to move on each front, yet for geostrategic purposes, a blurring of lines, militarily conceptualized as a political-ideological-structural impediment to America’s global hegemony.

And today’s editorial, “Not Getting Through to Mr. Putin,” plays catch-up with tendencies building well before the Ukrainian crisis and US-EU maneuverings into confrontation with Russia. More sanctions followed earlier this week. NYT, if I may use the term, crows at their effects on the Russian economy, including, “[o]n Friday, citing the capital flight, Standard & Poor’s cut Russia’s credit rating to a notch above junk.” The Times wants more, for the newly-announced “targeted penalties are not likely to change Russia’s behavior.” Unfortunately, “the sort that would—coordinated United States-European Union sanctions on financial institutions, the energy sector or defense industries—have proved very difficult to construct, largely because of the substantial differences between American and European exposure to Russia’s economy.” E.g., “European Union trade with Russia…amounted to almost $370 billion in 2012, compared with United States-Russia trade of $26 billion….What that means is that any sanctions that really bite will cost Europe a lot more than the United States.”

Not to worry, by implication we are dealing with a Hitler wannabe: “Europe’s concern over the economic repercussions of broader economic sanctions are understandable. But that should not lead to any myopia about the danger Mr. Putin poses and the need to rein him in.” I have the feeling that when we speak of Putin and Russia, we are holding up a mirror catching our own reflection. What of the danger Obama poses and the need to rein him in? The Times goes on to describe Putin in terms of “[h]is authoritarian behavior at home.” What of Obama’s policies on surveillance, government transparency, Espionage Act prosecutions of whistleblowers? Quoting German Foreign Minister Steinmeier, “’We’ve slid into the worst crisis since the end of the Cold war,’” The Times itself closes, “That crisis will only get worse unless the West is prepared to unite behind serious economic sanctions that hurt Russia’s financial, energy and military sectors.” Translation: Starve the bastards.

My New York Times Comments on, respectively, Baker’s article on the search for Putin’s wealth and the editorial on Putin, same dates, follow:

Assuming the best case scenario, from the US standpoint, how does this affect one’s judgment about, or invalidate, Putin’s policies? Is this germane to his resistance to American global hegemony? Does this somewhat reverse the facts of fascist and Nazi-antecedent participation in the Kiev government? Does Putin’s wealth or lack thereof change the reality of a US-assisted COUP of a democratically-elected government in Ukraine?

Some perspective here, please. If one cannot refute the policy, then go after the man; in plain language, demonize. Paradoxically, we blame Putin here for what in America is worshipped, to wit, the accumulation of wealth. How have it both ways, the insinuation Russia somehow is still communist, then attack the leadership of capitalistic enrichment–forgetting all the while America’s participation (e.g., Jeffrey Sachs as the tip of the US policy iceberg) in the systemic transformation.

Also, this may come back to haunt us: Obama’s Martha Vineyard vacations, palsy-walsy attitude toward Wall Street, administration record of deregulation and presiding over the most flagrant maldistribution of wealth in US history. Obama strikes this writer as the envious guy, nose pressed to the window, hoping the wealth he so admires will rub off. And clearly he EXULTS in the trappings of office. deplaning from Air Force One. Criticize Putin by all means, but on POLICY, not on personal matters, unless the latter can be shown relevant to policy itself.

By all means, beat the drums of WAR (sanctions being another name for war on a more sophisticated level, and a likely prelude to the real thing). The Times should move its Editorial Board to–depending on space–the White House Propaganda Ministry and the Pentagon, where it will be closer in spouting the Administration line.

By all means, demonize Putin. Where, a word on the Ukraine coup that brought events to a head? Where, Obama on assassination? Where, Obama on massive surveillance and eavesdropping on foreign leaders? Where, Obama on two major interventions, CIA-JSOC global involvement on subversion and regime change? Where, Obama on using the FBI for cyberattacks? Where, Obama on contempt for transparent government and freedom of the press, as in Espionage Act prosecutions for whistleblowers?

Since the death of Arthur Sulzberger, who had the courage to publish the Pentagon Papers, The Times, on national-security, has gone steadily downhill, now a champion of Cold War politics. Where is NYT’s commitment to balance and journalistic integrity? Not even a word on the projected plan–currently stopped by Putin–of bringing NATO forces to the Russian border? The paper has excellent national-security reporters–the editorial board might as well be miles away, for it does not read the front page: a schizophrenic arrangement.

Norman Pollack has written on Populism. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at pollackn@msu.edu.

Norman Pollack Ph.D. Harvard, Guggenheim Fellow, early writings on American Populism as a radical movement, prof., activist.. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at pollackn@msu.edu.

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