America at War*

America at War

The U.S. has increasingly weaponized sanctions and tariffs in an effort to force hostile countries to bend or surrender to American demands. Realists refer to this as waging war.

America is at war.

In pursuing victory, America has slapped onerous sanctions on Iran, Venezuela, North Korea, Cuba and Russia.

In dealing with Iran, the Obama Administration in 2010 imposed sanctions in an effort to pressure Iran’s government into abandoning its development of nuclear weapons. In 2015, the U.S., joined by the EU, the UK, Russia, France, China and Germany, agreed to lift those sanctions in exchange for Iran’s promise to shut down specified nuclear facilities and limit nuclear development for a period of ten years. Monitors of Iran’s compliance with the 2015 agreement indicated that it had adhered to the agreement’s terms. The agreement did not address Iran’s non-nuclear activities, including Iran’s support of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, Houthi rebels in Yemen, terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, and other destabilizing actors in the Middle East and elsewhere. It also did not address Iran’s missile development program or Iran’s hostility to America and Israel. That, plus Iran’s future ability to develop nuclear weapons, led the Trump Administration in 2018 to withdraw from the 2015 agreement and impose a new round of sanctions on Iran. Those sanctions recently were amplified, markedly, when the U.S. added Iran’s Revolutionary Guards to its list of terrorist organizations, a designation never before made of a sovereign government’s agency, and announced that after May 1st it would sanction previously-exempted countries if they thereafter violated America’s embargo on Iranian oil. Those countries include two of America’s allies, Japan and South Korea, Turkey, a NATO member, India and China. The economic pain Iran is experiencing from America’s sanctions is intense. The IMF this week confirmed that Iran is in recession and estimated that its economy will contract by 6{29ea29b64b10057f61377b2c087cd5b7537a0cd24da4295a308b0bf589469f35} this year and that inflation will approach 40{29ea29b64b10057f61377b2c087cd5b7537a0cd24da4295a308b0bf589469f35}. The Trump Administration recognizes that Iran cannot be brought to the negotiating table. America’s goal quite simply is regime change.

The U.S. goal in Venezuela also is regime change. Venezuela has been misgoverned for two decades, first by Hugo Chavez and then by Nicholas Maduro. According to Human Rights Watch, “Hunger, malnutrition, and severe food shortages are widespread.” More than 3 million Venezuelans have fled the country, creating a humanitarian crisis in neighboring countries. Venezuela is suffering from hyperinflation and has been selling its gold reserves to pay Russia, China and Cuba for necessities to support senior government and military officials. Repeated attempts by civilians to change the government have been stymied by a military that continues its support of the Maduro regime and by military and economic backing from Russia, Cuba and China. (See “Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick” in the March 27th and 29thTLR.) The U.S. has ratcheted up sanctions on senior Venezuelan government officials, recognized as legitimate a government headed by opposition leader Juan Guaido, agitated for Maduro to be deposed, and redirected ownership of Venezuelan properties to representatives of Guaido. Venezuela remains in turmoil and, as the Trump Administration has indicated in revising America’s military commitment to Iraq and Syria, America is not interested in engaging in foreign military adventures especially when American soldiers might have to confront Russian and Cuban troops. Even if America’s efforts at regime change succeed, many question how its economy can be salvaged without massive economic aid which the Trump Administration is unlikely to supply given its general opposition to providing foreign aid to other strategically-important countries.

Regime change also was the goal of the Trump Administration in its initial dealings with North Korea. That changed. President Trump first threatened punitive sanctions, but suspended their application and attempted one-on-one negotiations with Kim Jong Un. Those efforts were unsuccessful and, although pre-existing sanctions continue to damage the North Korean economy, neither they nor increased sanctions will create regime change or denuclearization. America has had a long and undistinguished history of sanctions against North Korea. Those sanctions did not dissuade North Korea from acting against American interests by counterfeiting US Dollars and hacking U.S. industrial interests, by developing nuclear weapons and the missile systems to deliver them, or by selling those nuclear and missile secrets to other countries. China remains its ally and protector, and Russia, perceiving another opportunity to poke the U.S. in the eye, has added its support. The fact that both share a border with North Korea severely mitigates America’s sanctions. It therefore is unclear what goal might be served by additional U.S. sanctions against North Korea.

The U.S. has been directing similar muscle against Cuba, once again with the goal of regime change and also to satisfy the demands of expatriate Cuban voters in Florida. The Trump Administration reversed the Obama Administration’s relaxation of prior sanctions and is now threatening a “full and complete embargo” of Cuba unless Cuba ceases its support of Venezuela’s Maduro. Cuba enjoys the economic and military support of Russia, China and their allies. It therefore is unclear what effect additional U.S. sanctions against Cuba might have.

America’s sanctions against Russia are punitive. Their aim is to dissuade Russia from expansionist initiatives, to discourage it from pursuing further empire-building that would mirror its absorptions of territory in Ukraine, Georgia and Crimea, as well as to cease its cyber attacks and interference in Western government politics. The hope is that sanctions will change Russia’s behavior. The unpleasant reality is that the U.S. and Russia have been waging a 21st century Cold War (labeled by some as a cyber-war) for almost a decade. America’s sanctions have damaged the Russian economy and supporters of Vladimir Putin, but have not yet affected Russia’s empire-building, cyber activities, or election meddling. Nevertheless, additional sanctions could deplete Russia’s economic ability to continue its activities at the same level and to support other sanctioned regimes.

Sanctions are a weapon, a form of warfare. They are an alternative short of overt military action – at times, only just short – and they carry with them the implied threat of ensuing military action. Their mere use threatens escalation. U.S. sanctions therefore are sometimes properly characterized as acts of war, war against Iran, Venezuela, Russia, North Korea and Cuba. They are delivering pain and, make no mistake, people are dying. America’s sanctions war is heating up as its sanctions bite. Although the “sanction wars” are not yet “hot wars,” they are creating and/or magnifying hot spots – in Syria, Iran, Venezuela, Yemen, Afghanistan and elsewhere. America’s opponents recognize this. Russia and Cuba have allied themselves with Venezuela’s Maduro, with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, with the governments of Iran and Turkey … and the rest of the world is watching closely before choosing a winner side. America’s sanctions have brought America’s enemies closer together – “the enemies of my American enemy are my friends.” They also have the potential to alienate America’s friends who are directly or collaterally damaged by America’s sanctions.

The U.S. also has weaponized tariffs, a milder form of economic warfare. The foremost target of tariffs has been China although the U.S. hasn’t hesitated to impose tariffs on its allies, the EU and Japan, to force concessions from them as well. America’s tariffs have not led either the EU or Japan to separate themselves from U.S. military protection. They cannot afford to. But their tariff wars with the U.S. are not drawing them closer either. China and America have been in negotiations for a number of months in an effort to find common ground, to reach a truce in their tariff war. China has long recognized America’s leverage and, like America, is seeking terms that will enable its economy to continue growing (see also “Red Storm Rising” in the April 12th TLR). Meanwhile, the war has damaged both economies.

Sanctions on Iran and Venezuela have placed heavy burdens on both countries. Each will have to bend to America’s will or … take action. Escalation therefore is a risk, one America needs to be prepared to address. The increased sanctions against Iran, draconian as they are, appear more likely to lead to further militarism than to regime change. Iran’s leaders are not about to modify either their words or their actions even though they have few alternatives. Will they be desperate enough to close the Strait of Hormuz through which ~20{29ea29b64b10057f61377b2c087cd5b7537a0cd24da4295a308b0bf589469f35} of the world’s oil flows – largely to India and China? Doing so would likely have a huge impact on global oil prices … and result in an American military response. Iran also could ratchet up hot spots in which the Houthi, Hezbollah, Hamas and other terrorist allies of Iran operate. In Venezuela, it is unclear what hostile actions – beyond those already taken – the current government or Russia or Cuba or China might take.

America’s sanctions and tariffs have helped to create pragmatic alliances among Iran, Russia, China, Syria, Venezuela and Cuba … and created the potential for others to join in opposition to the U.S. Similar to 20th century Cold War divisions, the world is bifurcating between America and its allies, on one side, and enemies of America, on the other. It therefore is critical for America’s security that it succeed in its sanctions and tariff wars and that those wars not escalate. In the near term, victory over Iran and the defeat of Maduro are crucial tests of America’s strength.

Finally (from a good friend)


*┬® Copyright 2019 by William Natbony. All rights reserved.

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