On his second day in office, President Joe Biden promised a top-to-bottom review of US sanctions policy, the humanitarian impact of these punitive economic restrictions, and whether sanctions are hindering pandemic relief efforts abroad. It was supposed to be an opportunity to honestly assess the human cost of sanctions, to constrain the use of such measures, and to offer an alternative to former President Donald Trump’s aggressive approach.
The Treasury Department finally released the long-awaited report on Monday, and advocates are frustrated. It’s nine pages long. Without the title page and final blank page, the nine-month review is summed up in just seven pages, barely acknowledging the devastating humanitarian impact of US sanction regimes. Covid-19, the global fight against the pandemic, and vaccination aren’t mentioned at all. “Frankly, I’m disappointed by the sanctions review,” Representative Chuy García of Illinois told The Nation. “A 933 percent increase in the use of sanctions over the last 20 years merits a real investigation, not a nine page memo.”
During the pandemic, US sanctions worsened devastating supply shortages in Cuba and restricted access to vaccines and medical treatment in countries like Venezuela. A month after the administration launched the review, dozens of congressional Democrats wrote to Biden urging him to reconsider sanctions that impeded Covid-19 relief, and to take a broader look at sanctions as a foreign policy tactic overall.
“I’m certainly frustrated. Our community is frustrated,” said Paul Carroll, director of the Charity & Security Network, a resource and advocacy center for nonprofit organizations. “We’re still trying to really understand what went wrong, frankly. Somewhere, there was a wrong turn, and I don’t know if it was intentional or not, but this review was very scarce on details and specifics, and I just feel like they missed the boat on what was sort of promised to us.”
This isn’t a case where progressives and human rights groups overestimated the administration; the White House explicitly said it planned to “review existing [US and multilateral sanctions] to evaluate whether they are unduly hindering responses to the COVID-19 pandemic.” Biden administration officials repeatedly characterized the review as a necessary step in overhauling aspects of how the country wields this weapon. When discussing the review in March, according to The Wall Street Journal, the National Security Council’s senior director of international economics and competitiveness, Peter Harrell, said that “the goal of sanctions should not be to punish ordinary citizens for the actions of their leaders,” .
Instead, the report offers a full-throated defense of US sanctions, stating that its objective is to “ensure that economic and financial sanctions remain an effective tool of US national security and foreign policy now and in the future.” The report begins with a list of cases over the last 20 years where sanctions, it claims, were “successfully employed” to address “national security challenges.” But studies have shown that sanctions rarely achieve their stated goals. Iran is counted as a success story in the report, but sanctions have inflicted immeasurable suffering on countless ordinary Iranians—without making the world any safer. In Iran, the sanctions campaign waged by American presidents from both political parties drove up unemployment rates, lowered incomes, and, once the pandemic hit, choked off medical supplies as coronavirus cases surged, increasing deaths across the country.
Senator Jon Ossoff also wants the administration to dig deeper into the failures of US sanction regimes. On Tuesday, during a Senate Banking Committee hearing on the review, the Georgia senator pressed Deputy Treasury Secretary Wally Adeyemo on the issue, asking him to identify specific failures of US sanctions. But Adeyemo dodged the question each time. “We’re trying to learn lessons here…,” Ossoff said. “If we’re unable in a public setting to articulate or discuss any specific cases where US sanctions policy has been ineffective beyond generalities, then I think we have more work to do.” Frustrated with the nonresponse, Ossoff told Adeyemo that he would be following up for additional meetings.
As America has become increasingly reliant on sanctions, members of Congress have become accordingly complacent, with few exceptions. Sanctions are slapped on anything and everything, and are rarely challenged or questioned. House Democrats like Representatives Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and García have pushed for legislation that would force regular reports on the humanitarian impacts of sanctions along with other reforms, but most lawmakers are still fixated on trying to make sanctions smarter. Most fundamentally, the review “fails to analyze whether our proliferating sanctions regime is actually advancing US national security and foreign policy goals,” Garcia stressed. “To truly reform our sanctions policy framework, we need comprehensive reporting on the effectiveness and consequences of current sanctions, and I will continue working with colleagues in the House and Senate to make that happen.”
Just look at what the House Foreign Affairs Committee is up to this week. The committee is marking up a Myanmar bill that includes sanctions, a resolution on Ethiopia that recommends sanctions, and a bill to sanction whoever “directed or carried out” Havana Syndrome attacks. (A declassified State Department report dismissed the idea that microwave weapon attacks or ultrasound beams are behind the reported health problems, and found that “psychogenic” mass psychology effects probably played a role.)
For one Democratic House staffer, the latter epitomizes “the absurdity of the overuse of sanctions.” “We love sanctions so much, we’re sanctioning nobody, over a thing that we don’t know what it is,” the staffer told The Nation. “We don’t know what caused Havana Syndrome or why, but whatever it was, we are going to sanction the shit out of it.”