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The purpose of sanctions: "Hunger, Desperation, Overthrow of Government."
That was sixty-two years ago. Nothing's changed.
For those who don’t read the excellent journal (you should) here’s a piece of mine on sanctions in the London Review of Books,
Twenty years in, CIA knew they didn’t work, but kept it a secret.
In a secret memorandum dated 6 April 1960, a US State Department official called Lestor Mallory spelled out the ultimate purpose of American sanctions on Cuba: to ‘bring about hunger, desperation and overthrow of government’. Twenty years later, the CIA Intelligence Directorate produced a classified report on the effectiveness of the sanctions. ‘In our judgment,’ the analysts concluded, ‘economic sanctions, by themselves or in conjunction with other measures, have not met any of their objectives.’ They had even strengthened the Cuban regime, since they ‘provided Castro with a scapegoat for all kinds of domestic problems’.
More than sixty years after Mallory’s hopeful prognosis, as the US and its allies step up their economic war on Russia, the basic effects of sanctions are unchanged. They do cause hunger and desperation; they don’t lead to the overthrow of the enemy regime; they do strengthen its grip on power. In Iraq, Iran and Syria, populations were at least immiserated and often starved. There is little reason to expect that the blockade of almost everything Russian, from banks to cats (now banned from international competition), will alter the political fortunes of Vladimir Putin.
When sanctions became “smart”
Over the years, however, the weapon itself has been refined. In the late 1980s, officials at what had been a sleepy bureaucratic backwater at the US Treasury, the Office of Foreign Assets Control, developed the tool of targeting businesses and their owners by isolating them from any connection with the dollar economy. Stuart Levey, Treasury undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence between 2004 and 2011, pioneered a way of inflicting destruction far beyond any designated target. His innovation was to target banks that dealt in any way with one of the tens of thousands of people and entities on OFAC’s Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons list, and punish infractions with multibillion dollar fines. Almost no bank will now go anywhere near someone who might be on the list. This means, for instance, that although OFAC has issued ‘special licences’ permitting aid organisations to transfer money into Afghanistan to help feed the millions on the brink of starvation there, in practice it’s next to impossible to do so, because the US and European banks necessary to the transaction are terrified that they might inadvertently be connected to a targeted individual such as a Taliban official.
But two can play at that game.
The novel feature of the current economic offensive against Russia is of course that Russia has weapons of its own – notably energy, food and other commodities vital to the global economy – which its officials have explicitly threatened to deploy. They may induce hunger – much of the Middle East relies on Russian and Ukrainian wheat, for example – and desperation in regions far and wide. Who will the regimes under threat choose to blame? Russia? Or the US?