Thinking Aloud: “Sanctions as a Foreign Policy Tool: Helpful or Harmful?”

Mar. 2, 2015 by Darius

Last week, I attended a debate on “Sanctions as a Foreign Policy Tool: Helpful or Harmful?”  Arguing the case for sanctions was David Kramer of the McCain Institute for International Leadership (yes, that McCain); arguing against the use of sanctions was Bill Reinsch of the National Foreign Trade Council.  Perhaps surprisingly, the two were in agreement about many points.

Kramer first outlined what success means in terms of sanctions.  He said that sanctions “work” if they change the behavior of another government, obtain concrete results like the release of political prisoners, or, somewhat vaguely, deter future bad behavior by a government.  He cited sanctions against Belarus in 2007 and 2008 as a good example of success, as he believes the sanctions led directly to the release of political prisoners in Belarus.

Kramer also said that several other conditions need to be met for sanctions to work.  First, the target of the sanctions must think even more sanctions or punitive measures will follow if they do not change their behavior.  Second, the target must be provided with a roadmap of sorts: what specific things do they need to do for sanctions to be lifted?  Here as well, Kramer cited Belarus: the Belarusian government was told that sanctions would be lifted if certain political prisoners were released.  Days later, the prisoners were released.  Finally, Kramer said that sanctions cannot be the only tool used to change a government’s behavior.

Reinsch also spoke about the criteria for sanctions to work.  Citing academic research, Reinsch said that the smaller the target country and the smaller the desired goal, the greater the chance of success for sanctions.

However, Reinsch distinguished between several types of sanctions.  According to Reinsch, sanctions put in place by Congress are almost always inflexible, counterproductive, and difficult to unwind.  Congress takes a long time to act and is often more concerned with making a political point than constructively seeking to change behavior.  Additionally, Reinsch cautioned against the use of unilateral sanctions.  He considered unilateral sanctions to be a lose-lose for the US: if other countries are not on board as well, foreign companies will fill needs in the target country’s economy, effectively nullifying the pain of the sanctions.  US companies, previously doing business in the target country, are locked out and lose revenue.  As a result, the US economy suffers, and the sanctions are ineffective.

Reinsch also discussed the rather recent phenomenon of individual US states applying their own sanctions.  From a business perspective, individual state sanctions are a major headache.  Maintaining compliance with national sanctions alone is difficult and costly.  So far, 28 states have enacted sanctions in some form.  These laws vary greatly from state by state, and in some cases, companies are in violation of one state or another’s laws no matter what they do.  Individual state sanctions have been repeatedly ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, but states continue passing new sanctions.

Though the panelists made some good points, I felt the discussion was not all it could have been.  Reinsch’s comments made it quite clear that sanctions are bad for US businesses, but he didn’t broaden his remarks past the cost to US businesses.  For instance, he did not address whether or not the economic sacrifice might be necessary or worth it in some cases.  Kramer, for his part, seemed obsessed with the need for sanctions on Russia and Vladimir Putin.  He didn’t discuss, or seem to know much about, past use of sanctions aside from his Belarus example.

Sanctions are almost always imposed from a position of weakness: diplomacy has failed but armed conflict is not desirable.  Sanctions are perceived as an in-between step, but are they effective or just political theater?  (One statistic cited during the Q&A was that sanctions succeeded, by whatever definition was being used for success, only about 15 times out of 100.)  What this discussion really needed was a thorough analysis of some of the more and less well-known uses of sanctions in recent history.  Did they achieve their goals?  Were sanctions, in fact, the cause for a change in behavior?  What were their exact costs to businesses?  How were they paired with other foreign policy initiatives?  Unfortunately, neither of the speakers at this event had the knowledge to have this discussion.

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News You Really Need To See: “Syrian Rebel Group Aided by U.S. Collapses After Losing Its Headquarters”

“Syrian Rebel Group Aided by U.S. Collapses After Losing Its Headquarters”

The Washington Post, March 2, 2015, p.A7

“The first Syrian rebel group to be given U.S. weapons collapsed Sunday after losing control of its headquarters to Syria’s main al-Qaeda affiliate, further complicating American-led efforts to counter the rise of extremism in Syria.  The rout of Harakat Hazm, whose name means Steadfastness Movement, culminated months of clashes with the al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra in which the moderate group first was pushed from its main headquarters in the northern Syrian province of Idlib and then was ousted Sunday from its new base in the province of Aleppo.  After losing this latest battle, Hazm said in a statement circulated on social media that the movement had been dissolved ‘in an effort to halt the bloodshed’ and that surviving members would be absorbed into a new rebel coalition called the Shamiyah Front.  Nusra fighters boasted on Twitter that they had seized control of U.S.-made TOW anti-tank missiles and other American aid provided to Hazm when they overran the rebels’ headquarters in the town of Atarib in the province of Aleppo. … Hazm, which once claimed to have 5,000 fighters, had received U.S. weapons under a separate covert program launched last year by the CIA that was intended to bolster moderate rebels and put pressure on President Bashar al-Assad to compromise with the opposition.  Since Islamic State fighters surged into the Iraqi city of Mosul last summer, the Obama administration has refocused its Syria policy in ways that emphasize defeating the Islamic State rather than pressuring Assad to step down.”

Quickie Analysis:  The US has a long and proud tradition, going at least as far back as the French and Indian War, of encouraging, arming, and then discarding local allies.

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Thinking Aloud: “What Is the What”

Mar. 1, 2015 by Darius

I recently read What Is the What, the (lightly fictionalized) autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng, one of the Lost Boys of Sudan, written in collaboration with American author Dave Eggers.  The haunting story is Deng’s; the magnificent storytelling is Eggers’s.  They were introduced to each other in 2003 in order to give Deng’s story a wider audience.  What Is the What is a raw, powerful book, the story of incredible hardship across many countries and many years.

Deng is a member of the Dinka tribe, living in the Bahr el-Ghazal region in what is today South Sudan but was, in Deng’s childhood, Sudan.  Deng’s father owned a shop in the small village of Marial Bai, and Deng’s childhood was like those around him.  When Deng was approximately eight years old, everything changed: war broke out once again between the Sudanese government and rebels fighting for independence in South Sudan.  The Sudanese government armed a different tribe in the area, which raided Deng’s village.  Without knowing the fate of his family, Deng walked with other boys in a similar situation across the length of what is today South Sudan into Ethiopia.  After several years, the Ethiopian government expelled the Sudanese refugees, forcing them into Kenya, where Deng spent many long years at the Kakuma refugee camp.  Ultimately, Deng, along with a few hundred other Lost Boys, was resettled to the United States, where he currently lives.  But this summary does not in any way do justice to his story.

Reading What Is the What, I was absolutely blown away by what Deng and the other boys of South Sudan endured.  They survived armed raids, enslavement, lion attacks, and desert crossings without water.  They survived recruitment into guerilla armies and squalid conditions in refugee camps.  They survived disappointment and dreams deferred in the US.  Through it all, they (mostly) maintain their identity and what it meant to be Dinka and, later, South Sudanese.

By turns tragic and inspiring, What Is the What should be required reading for everyone.

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News You Really Need To See: “Nearly Halted in Sierra Leone, Ebola Makes Comeback by Sea”

“Nearly Halted in Sierra Leone, Ebola Makes Comeback by Sea”

The New York Times, March 1, 2015, p.A1

“It seemed as if the Ebola crisis was abating.  New cases were plummeting.  The president lifted travel restrictions, and schools were to reopen.  A local politician announced on the radio that two 21-day incubation cycles had passed with no new infections in his Freetown neighborhood.  [Sierra Leone], many health officials said, was ‘on the road to zero.’  Then Ebola washed in from the sea.  Sick fishermen came ashore in early February to the packed wharf-side slums that surround the country’s fanciest hotels, which were filled with public health workers.  Volunteers fanned out to contain the outbreak, but the virus jumped quarantine lines and cascaded into the countryside, bringing dozens of new infections and deaths. … Public health experts preparing for an international conference on Ebola on Tuesday seem to have no doubt that the disease can be vanquished in the West African countries ravaged by it in the last year.  But the steep downward trajectory of new cases late last year and into January did not lead to the end of the epidemic.  In Sierra Leone, the hardest hit of the countries, the decline leveled off in late January, and the country has reported 60 to 80 new cases weekly since then.  Guinea has experienced months of lower-level spread.  Even in Liberia, where only a handful of treatment beds remain occupied, responders lament that a health care worker who recently became ill might have exposed dozens of colleagues and patients, and that a knife fight had exposed gang members to the blood of a man who tested positive for Ebola. … When the cluster erupted at the wharf area — part of a large neighborhood known as Aberdeen, with about 9,000 residents — some Ebola prevention workers were taken by surprise because they had been continuing surveillance efforts.  Officials imposed a quarantine, prompting many fishermen to take to the sea to avoid it.”

Quickie Analysis:  This article highlights the difficulties of finishing off an outbreak without full popular buy-in.  

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Thinking Aloud: Pushing All of Algeria’s Buttons

Feb. 28, 2015 by Darius

In the deserts of southern Algeria, protests against the government occur almost every day.  Near some towns, youths have closed roads with blockades of burning tires.  Clashes with riot police and soldiers are becoming more frequent.  The cause?  Algeria’s government wants to begin exploiting local shale gas reserves via fracking.  It would be hard to come up with a situation that has greater potential to inflame Algerians.

The government wants to start fracking to boost oil revenues, which have collapsed along with oil prices.  Like most Middle Eastern governments, Algeria’s government stays in power largely thanks to an expansive welfare state, which predictably creates quite a drain on budgets.  Furthermore, Algeria’s government has been massively corrupt since independence.  Instead of addressing either of these issues, the Algerian government has decided that the solution lies in simply pulling more petroleum out of the ground.

Southern Algeria is home to most of Algeria’s oil and gas reserves, but most of Algeria’s people are in the north.  Oil revenues rarely come home.  The south has long felt, according to a popular expression, that “We have the cow and the north has the milk.”  In addition, Algeria’s people are perfectly aware of the massive corruption in the government.  Combined, the protesters in the south aren’t buying the Algerian government’s line that fracking will ultimately be good for all Algerians.

The protesters also object to the fracking process itself.  Fracking is very water intensive and, given water’s scarcity in the desert, many believe that fracking will excessively drain local water supplies.  Pollution is another issue of which protesters are very aware.

Finally, to make the whole thing much more insulting, the Algerian government is proposing to allow a French company, Total, to carry out actual fracking operations.  Given that France occupied Algeria for nearly a century and a half and 1.5 million Algerians were killed in the war for independence, Algeria’s people are very sensitive to any form of perceived French economic colonialism.  To top it off, fracking has been banned in France for environmental reasons, making fracking in southern Algeria just another item in a long list of things France, or French companies, have done in Algeria because they weren’t allowed to do them in France.  Nuclear testing comes to mind.

In summation: southern Algeria is restive because a corrupt government in the north wants to plunder more resources to prop up its financial skimming and bad economic policies by draining and perhaps polluting the desert’s limited water in conjunction with a foreign company that would be doing in Algeria something that it can’t do in its own country because the practice has been deemed too unsafe, which is incidentally the same country that inflicted 150 years of misery on Algeria.  It’s not hard to understand why Algerians are protesting.  Not that it will ultimately make any difference to the government, though.

For more details on the protests, see “Shale Gas Project Encounters Persistent Foes Deep in Algerian Sahara,” The New York Times, February 26, 2015, p.A4,

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News You Really Need To See: “Murder in the Heart of Moscow Has Hallmarks of Professional Hit”

“Murder in the Heart of Moscow Has Hallmarks of Professional Hit”

Bloomberg Businessweek, February 28, 2015

“The Friday night killing of Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov just outside the Kremlin, in one of the most closely watched areas of Russia, bears all the signs of having been planned and executed by professionals.  That’s the assessment of former intelligence officials, analysts and activists familiar with the case. … Nemtsov’s slaying echoes a series of politically sensitive murders and contract killings during Putin’s 15-year rule.  The opposition blames the government for creating an atmosphere of aggression and hatred toward critics, while authorities have floated theories including a plot to destabilize the country and the involvement of Islamist radicals.  Motives aside, the method points to professionals, said Gennady Gudkov, an opposition activist and former secret service officer. … The slaying of a high-profile target who was almost certainly under surveillance by security officials shows a high level of preparation, Soldatov said.  The crime was executed in an area where there’s no place to park a car or ‘hide a killer,’ suggesting the use of several teams and meticulous timing, he said. … To some of Nemtsov’s allies, there’s no ambiguity about the nature of the murder, regardless of the probe.  The accuracy of the shots and the audacity of committing the crime in such a high-security environment suggests the complicity of authorities, according to Vladimir Milov, a former deputy energy minister.”

Quickie Analysis:  Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko has said Nemtsov was working on a project to expose Russia’s involvement in Ukraine.  (Most Russians do not believe that Russian troops are fighting in Ukraine.) Although the person who fired the shots may well be “brought to justice,” the person who ordered the killing almost certainly won’t be.

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Thinking Aloud: I Am an Atheist Blogger Too

Feb. 27, 2015 by Darius

Yesterday, a blogger in Bangladesh was hacked to death on his way home from a book fair.  Avijit Roy, a US citizen born in Bangladesh, is thought to have been killed by Islamist extremists for his writing, which promotes secular and humanist values and condemns religious extremism.

Roy was an atheist and had received death threats in the past.  Yesterday, those threats became reality.

As readers of this blog know, I have a long-standing interest in the Islamic world.  I have respect for the writings of Mohammed and Jesus and Moses, among others.  I have an anthropologist’s interest in religion and people of faith.  But I am an atheist.  Not an in-your-face atheist, but religion and faith in a deity are pretty much orthogonal to my life.

Thanks to dumb luck, I was born in the United States, where atheists are not marked for death by religious extremists of any flavor.  But it didn’t need to turn out that way.  In a different world, I could have been in Roy’s position instead of writing about it from afar.

Roy was hardly the only atheist in the Muslim world.  The uncle of my host family in Jordan was an atheist, for example.  But Muslim fundamentalists seem increasingly threatened by any deviation from their script.  Saudi Arabia made headlines in January by flogging a blogger who was arrested in 2012 for encouraging online debate of religious extremism.  (Because it’s better *not* to debate religious extremism??)

Yesterday, Avijit Roy inadvertently gave his life for what he believed in: science, rationality, and humanism.  His martyrdom (because that’s really what it was) won’t get the attention of the Paris attacks, but the world, including the Muslim world, will be poorer for his loss.  #JeSuisRoy.

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