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Sanctions as Siege Warfare

In the distant past, the one place that people could escape a marauding army was behind the walls of a castle. Though this usually protected them from any immediate danger, it created problems of its own. While under siege and waiting for outside help or for the attackers to leave in frustration, those behind the walls could ultimately run out of food and even potable water, which would lead either to surrender or a slow, terrible death.

Although they’re never portrayed as such, in our own time, a form of siege warfare is applied to whole countries, usually poorer ones, through the misuse of sanctions.

There are innumerable forms of sanctions: opprobrium, boycotts, embargoes, denial of service, travel bans, export bans, divestment, asset seizures, blockades, censure, and much more.

Sanctions can be just. They were used against South Africa in the 1980s, and, as part of a mass movement dedicated to ending apartheid that included boycotts and divestment campaigns, ultimately helped bring down that evil system. They were used to help stop segregation in the American South in the 1960s.

In contrast, much harsher and broader sanctions imposed on Iraq the following decade were in the main supported by a cabal of hawkish U.S. and British policymakers and the militarist think tanks affiliated with them. The human costs of them were rarely discussed with the public at large in either country.

We have often been told that sanctions like those used against Iraq will eventually lead to the overthrow of governments Western powers don’t like. History doesn’t bear this out. If anything, in countries as diverse as North Korea, Iran and Cuba, sanctions appear to have had the opposite effect, becoming a useful tool for rallying these populations behind their leaders. Just as Russian war crimes are making it more likely to increase Ukrainian resolute resistance, sanctions that hurt average Russians will tend to make them more loyal to Putin and less likely to resist him.

Wealthy people were the last to suffer behind castle walls, despite constant promises to the contrary, the first victims of the kinds of harsh economic restrictions we are discussing here are almost always the sick, the disabled, and the young. In the case of Iraq, it was reported that well over half a million children died as the result of the brutal sanctions imposed on the country after the first Gulf War, shamefully described by the US Secretary of State Albright as “worth it.” Saddam Hussein, his family, his colonels, and his inner circle did not miss any meals as a result of them. These became known as “killer sanctions.”

When we see immensely wealthy oligarchs cry over the loss of things like yachts and luxury properties in Western cities like London, we can appreciate those properly focused sanctions. But adding to the immiseration of regular Russians will not help anyone, nor will it lead to peace.

Tragically, countries facing such sanctions regimes are also often denied life extending and saving medical treatments that are deemed “dual use.” Those with diseases like cancer are unable to receive these treatments, often extending their own and their loved ones’ suffering. When economic sanctions have been most effective, they have been selectively imposed.

As a tool to avoid potentially ruinous conflicts and change the behavior of governments, targeted economic sanctions can do some good, especially if there is widespread international consensus regarding their use, something noticeably absent in terms of Russia, which spent more than half a decade trying to sanction proof their economy and seem to have succeeded in the short term.

The other piece left out of sanctioning Russia–a major international supplier of carbon-heavy energy–is the snail’s pace development of energy alternatives. Germany, Turkey, and Italy are historically the largest importers of Russian natural gas, so why haven’t they worked harder to find ways to convert to sustainable replacements–solar, wind, hydro, etc.? Why hasn’t the US helped them–could it be that since the US is the world’s largest exporter of natural gas there might be some conflict of interest?

Smart sanctions not only target elites, but never target average citizens unless, like poor black South Africans in the 1980s, those average citizens ask for the more generalized sanctions–indeed, they were the first to start them, with sustained boycotts of white businesses.

The way sanctions have all too often been used for the past 30 years against weaker nations has been cruel and ineffective, mainly hurting ordinary people who have little control over those that rule them. Sanctions that work are a scalpel, not a broadaxe.