Dems, GOP Join Hands for Sanctions
President Trump will sign a Congressional measure imposing new sanctions on Russia, Iran, and North Korea, showing a bipartisan — and dangerous — preference for confrontation over diplomacy, says Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies
AARON MATE: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Mate. President Trump says he will sign a new bill that imposes sanctions on Russia, Iran, and North Korea. The measure was approved last week with overwhelming bipartisan support and it’s immediately stirred a response. The Kremlin has taken action against the US diplomatic presence inside Russia. North Korea has tested a new intercontinental ballistic missile in what it calls a warning against those sanctions. And Iran has called the sanctions, “Hostile, reprehensible, and unacceptable as well as a threat to the nuclear deal.”
Phyllis Bennis is Director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policies Studies. Welcome Phyllis.
PHYLLIS BENNIS: Good to be with you Aaron.
AARON MATE: Thanks for joining us. So it’s striking to look at the target of these sanctions. Russia, Iran, North Korea. Three of the biggest foreign policy issues that the US faces and overwhelming bipartisan consensus, both the Republicans and Democrats, behind imposing new sanctions against all of them. Your thoughts?
PHYLLIS BENNIS: It is rather extraordinary. First of all, these foreign policy issues and these three countries pose very, very different situations and challenges for the United States. The notion that you can do a kind of cookie cutter attack, “We’re going to sanction them in all in one bill, get it all done at once.” This is insane. This is really crazy. The conditions in each country are very different. The impact of sanctions is going to be very different in each one but in none of them, I would assert, are sanctions going to help alleviate the challenge that the US faces in its relationship with each of these countries. So I think we have a serious problem here where the notion of sanctions is suddenly being posed as, “This is the answer to all the problems we have with countries that we don’t like. We’ll just sanction them all.” And then, what exactly? What do we think is gonna happen? Do we think that Iran is going to say, “Oh, okay, more sanctions. Well we’ll welcome that.”?
Ironically, Iran probably has one of the most sophisticated likely responses where I think they are very unlikely to respond with enormous hostility to the United States. They have everything to gain by making clear to the rest of the international community because, remember Aaron, the US nuclear deal with Iran was not signed off by just the US and Iran. It was six countries with Iran that signed off including all five of the permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany. They all signed off on that and Iran, giving every indication that their intention will be, “We’re abiding by the terms of the Iran nuclear deal,” which, even President Trump grudgingly had to admit last week, that yes, Iran was abiding by those terms. So we’re going to let the US isolate itself.
With North Korea, you have a very different set of circumstances where there’s been a change in the South Korean position, the South Korean President ran for President and won on the basis that he would do things differently. He wanted to begin negotiations again with North Korea and while that’s a challenging reality, the idea that somehow new sanctions are going to do something to stop North Korea’s seeking of nuclear capabilities. We’ve seen that before and it simply doesn’t work.
And then when you come to Russia, in Russia this is a very fascinating and, in my view, really inappropriate and the opposite of useful, approach to Moscow. What you’re looking at here, you see the immediate response by Putin, by the Russians, that when the new sanctions were announced, they immediately said, “Well, we’re going to respond to that. We’re going to demand that the US withdraw some hundreds of staff at their embassy and various consulates around Russia.” But very carefully, they made that decision and announced it after Congress had decided on the sanctions but before the Bill was signed off by President Trump. So officially, the response of Russia is to a move by Congress, not a move by the White House. Not a move by President Trump. So if they are still trying to make nice with the President, they still have the capacity to do that.
So all of these decisions that are, as I say very different, will have very different impacts. The notion of linking them all into one bill and getting this kind of massive support from both political parties really speaks, I think, to the inability of this Congress and of the White House to deal in a serious way with diplomacy. They simply are not prepared to rely on diplomacy at this point, it appears.
AARON MATE: Yeah, Phyllis. On that point, it’s the Iran part actually that confuses me most because, sure, on Russia and North Korea, there’s generally bipartisan agreement on how to address those issues. It’s a hawkish foreign policy establishment. Iran, though, Iran is President Obama’s. One of his biggest, if not his biggest, foreign policy achievements yet right now in Congress, you have all these Democrats going along with a measure that is stoking tensions with Iran and as we know from various reports we’ve seen about President Trump’s intentions, is likely intended to try to kill the Iran Nuclear Bill, the very thing that Obama worked so hard to pass.
PHYLLIS BENNIS: Yeah, it’s a really challenging moment because this is, as you say, the most important component of President Obama’s legacy. His foreign policy legacy has to look at the three arenas where he’s succeeded in foreign policy and in all three of those, the success was based on relying on diplomacy over war. So that was the Paris climate talks, the climate agreement, the rules towards normalization with Cuba, and more important than anything else, the Iran nuclear deal. In every other arena, President Obama’s foreign policy initiatives failed. He failed in Iraq. He failed in Syria. He failed in Afghanistan, failed in Libya, failed in Yemen. He failed across the way and in every one of those, the failure was based on the idea that he was using or relying on military rather than diplomatic solutions. The three examples of diplomacy winning out over war is what brought him success.
The reality is though those were not easy in Congress, for the White House to win, even among Democrats. The Iran nuclear deal, it was fought tooth and nail with Congressional Democrats if you remember. That wasn’t something that they were willing to say even though it was their own party’s President in the White House. They still were too oppositional in the relationship with Iran and were still prepared to call for more sanctions, call for more threats. It was a really touch and go situation and it was made possible, the victory was made possible because there was a massive outpouring of public support for diplomacy rather than war in Iran and with Iran and for the Iran nuclear deal.
Right now this administration clearly does not care about public opinion. Congress is paying no attention to public opinion and some of these right wing Democrats on these issues, and that goes across the party lines, are prepared, apparently, to abandon that extraordinary accomplishment. So this is a very, very delicate moment. The position, I assume, for these members of Congress in both parties will be, “Well these are not the sanctions that were based on Iran’s nuclear program. We’re agreeing that Iran has been abiding by its requirements under the nuclear deal so we’re not going to impose nuclear sanctions but these are sanctions because we don’t like what Iran is doing in the neighborhood. We don’t like what they’re doing in Syria. We don’t like what they’re doing somewhere else,” and it’s to prevent those things, allegedly, that the US will impose new sanctions.
The problem is, for Iran, US sanctions are US sanctions and whether or not they say that this is in response to an alleged Iranian violation at some point in the future of the nuclear deal or they admit that Iran is abiding by the nuclear deal and we just don’t like something else they’re doing, this is still giving Iran the ability to maintain good ties with the other countries that have signed onto the nuclear deal. Say to them, “Look, we signed an agreement with you. We don’t want to end that agreement. We’re not the ones that are undermining it. It’s Washington. It’s the Trump administration that is undermining the nuclear deal.” So it really strengthens Iran’s position in the world, far from undermining it as these sanctions supposedly are designed to do.
AARON MATE: Yeah, if part of the sanctions were aimed, supposedly, at Iran’s missile program, which is outside of the nuclear deal, Iran responded to the House vote, I believe, by launching a satellite into space.
PHYLLIS BENNIS: Something which they are perfectly allowed to do. There is no prohibition on that. The prohibition is on their nuclear policy and their nuclear program and they have not, according to the United States, they have not violated that. So the notion that the US wants to shake up this fragile entente, if you will, between Iran and the rest of the world, on their nuclear deal, that the US is perfectly willing to throw that out the window. I don’t think that that’s going to make this administration or Congress, for that matter, very popular with either our allies in the UK, in France, in Germany, or in Russia and China, the other countries that have signed on to the nuclear deal. This is designed, it couldn’t be better designed, to isolate the United States from its own allies and from its own competitors.
AARON MATE: So Phyllis, you’ve written about the ethicacy and the impact of sanctions for a long time and I already noted some of the developments that followed the sanctions. North Korea launched a missile test. Iran launched a satellite into space. Russia announced the reduction of US diplomatic staff inside Russia. I wonder if you can comment, just historically, on what sanctions from powers like the US generally illicit in the countries that it’s aimed at? I’m thinking especially of Iraq, where supposedly these sanctions on Saddam Hussein, ended up empowering Saddam Hussein and decimating his civilian population.
PHYLLIS BENNIS: Exactly. The Iraq sanctions are probably the best example of how the US uses sanctions as this incredibly blunt instrument that ends up, as it did in Iraq in the 12 years since sanctions were imposed in 1990, and kept in place until after the overthrow of the regime in 2003. In those years, the impact was devastating. It was genocidal in its impact on the civilian population. Half a million children under the age of five died from the results of sanctions. They were killed by US policy. At a moment, I think many will remember when Madeleine Albright famously, on 60 Minutes, when Lesley Stahl asked her about the half a million children that were killed as the result of the sanctions and without missing a beat, she said, “It’s a hard decision but we think the price is worth it.” And I almost wanted to ask her, “Madam Secretary, you have two daughters. If they were among those children that were killed, would you still say the price was worth it?”
This was an extraordinary period in US history where sanctions were doing the job of war. Sanctions were a tool of war. There are other kinds of sanctions and some of those are the ones that the US is imposing now in some of these instances where they are individual sanctions on individual ranking members on an administration or of a military where their personal accounts will be frozen in the United States, that sort of thing. The impact of those kinds of sanctions are less dramatic on the civilian population but, of course, are guaranteed to antagonize positions in power and encourage them, virtually, to respond in some way.
So there’s almost no way that these kinds of sanctions do a good job. We’ve seen sanctions imposed on North Korea for decades and it simply has not worked. When there were talks with the North Koreans, under the Clinton administration for instance, in 1994 there was the agreed framework to stop North Korea’s nuclear program. It didn’t work entirely but over the years that it was in place, North Korea did not add a single nuclear weapon to its very small arsenal. So it did work. The notion that we can’t do it, right now there is nothing else that we can do. The notion that you would use military force against an unstable regime like this, armed with nuclear weapons, and the kinds of missiles that they’ve been showing off in recent weeks, is the most reckless. The most dangerous kind of response that you could have.
So we’re going to have to have diplomacy. We’re going to have to have negotiations. It’s going to take a long time. It’s not clear who will be involved. Which other countries might have to be involved? Will China be involved? Maybe. But the notion that we can do something and not talk simply doesn’t work in the real world of where power lies right now, even in these countries that, in other circumstances, would be judged among the poorest around. You can have a very poor country like North Korea and a country that is still using its very small amount of hard cash available, to build a nuclear program that includes a military component. That’s a very dangerous reality but it’s a reality that we have to face if we have any chance of avoiding absolute catastrophe.
AARON MATE: Yeah, especially if the regime is calculated that it needs to maintain that nuclear weapons program to insure its own survival. [crosstalk 00:15:11]. Sorry, go ahead.
PHYLLIS BENNIS: I was just gonna say it may have made exactly that judgment, looking at the example of Libya. Libya was a country that was well on its way to having nuclear weapons and it agreed, under US pressure, to give up its US … Sorry, its nuclear weapons and it was only a few years later that the regime in Libya was attacked by NATO forces and the US. The regime was overthrown, Gaddafi was assassinated, and there has been utter chaos in the country ever since. There’s no question that North Korea is looking to the Libya model as one of the examples of what happens when you choose to get rid of your nuclear weapons. Of course there are other models. The South Africans gave up their nuclear weapons voluntarily. They didn’t do so under threat of military assault. They did it because they did not want to be in the waning of apartheid. They didn’t want to be wasting money and, frankly, for some, in the white nuclear establishment in South Africa, they didn’t want a black government to be in charge and for whatever reasons, the good reasons about money, and the bad reasons about racism, they made the decision on their own. It was not a decision that was based on a military threat.
The times when it was made on the basis of military threat, like Libya, that’s the example that these North Koreans are almost certainly looking at.
AARON MATE: Phyllis, let me ask you about Russia, as we wrap. I keep wondering what needs to happen, for liberal pundits especially, to drop the narrative that Putin is controlling Donald Trump because they somehow colluded in the 2016 race. Now we have Trump signing a bill that would impose these harsh sanctions on Russia and even limit his ability to undo them because that was also included inside the sanctions bill. And today, I just wanna get you to comment on this news we have today, which is that The Wall Street Journal reported that the Pentagon has drawn up a plan to provide lethal aid to Ukraine, including antitank missiles and other weaponry. Now this is the same kind of weapons that Obama refused to hand over to the Ukraine because he stated he didn’t wanna fuel a proxy war there. Now the Pentagon has come up with that plan, the White House will have to decide on it. But I like to think two things there. One, I wonder if the Pentagon would’ve even drawn up this plan in the absence of some kind of White House green light. And second of all, when I read that it’s about antitank missiles, I’m reminded that it was antitank missiles that the US gave to Syrian rebels and it was that supply that helped escalate the war and perhaps, prolong the Syrian war catastrophically.
PHYLLIS BENNIS: I think that there is a great deal of danger in these new developments. I haven’t seen the piece in The Wall Street Journal today and there’s no doubt that the Pentagon, on its own, does create options and plans and draw up these kinds of plans on their own, with or without White House suggestions. It doesn’t necessarily mean that this was coming at the initiative of the White House. And as you said, has not yet been signed off.
But I think that what were looking at, I think that this is a very dangerous moment in the escalating tensions with Russia. I think that it doesn’t mean that the Russian government may well have been involved in efforts to interact with, in some way, the US elections but that’s why we need an independent investigation of it. We don’t have all that evidence yet. What we do know is that building up this kind of tension and threatening Russia militarily, in this case, making the threats even more overt through threatening to provide new weapons, escalating levels of weaponry, to Ukraine is a repeat of the older efforts that happened right after the Cold War ended, when there was an agreement with then Russian President Gorbachev, where there was an agreement not to move the borders of NATO any closer to Russia. And instead, within just a couple of years, the border of NATO was right at the Russian border.
So this notion of not doing anything to inflame an already tricky relationship has not been abided by from the beginning. The end of the Cold War signaled an escalation of US claimed power and the expansion of NATO has made everything worse. It’s made things very, very dangerous. I think what we’re seeing here is a repeat and an escalation of that earlier effort to expand the borders of NATO and expand the power of NATO right up to the borders of Russia. And the United States is clearly playing with nuclear fire here. It’s a very, very dangerous moment.
AARON MATE: To think that Ukraine, on Russia’s border, is already a very violent place. Thousands of people have died. The prospect of possibly adding fuel to that fire is, in my mind, a very ominous one.
PHYLLIS BENNIS: These are ominous developments in all of these countries, in Iran, in North Korea, and in Russia. The escalation of US sanctions is going to make all of those challenges far worse and going to make solving those challenges far more difficult.
AARON MATE: Phyllis Bennis, Director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies. Phyllis, thank you.
PHYLLIS BENNIS: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure.
AARON MATE: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.