Sanctions Relief and the 'Defensive Crouch'
Providing sanctions relief to other countries that also results in reducing energy prices for Americans seems like a politically smart move rather than a perilous one.
Nahal Toosi reports on the political barriers to sanctions relief:
In recent months, as Biden has mulled reducing such penalties against countries such as Venezuela and Iran, he’s run headlong into opposition in Congress. Some lawmakers, knowing the topic will play well on the campaign trail [bold mine-DL], vow to do everything they can to stop the sanctions from being lifted.
It is true that there is always domestic political resistance to sanctions relief. Many critics of Biden’s resistance to lifting sanctions have noted that this is one of the main reasons why the president hasn’t made necessary changes to the failed “maximum pressure” policies he inherited from Trump. The fear of hawkish backlash has caused the administration to move slowly or not at all in moving away from sanctions policies that they have previously admitted don’t work. All of that has been clear enough over the last eighteen months, but what if the hawkish backlash isn’t as significant as the administration believes?
This raises some important questions: do voters care at all about sanctions policies come election time, and if they don’t why is hostility to sanctions relief considered so politically advantageous? Polling often shows broad public support for imposing sanctions on other states, because sanctions are perceived as low-cost, low-risk measures that penalize other governments for their abuses or other un desirable activities. It doesn’t follow that there must be equally broad opposition to providing sanctions relief if that has a chance of advancing U.S. interests. The assumption that bashing sanctions relief “plays well” on the campaign trail is one that hawks hold, but is it true? It could be, but this issue deserves more scrutiny.
According to the Eurasia Group Foundation’s annual survey, there is a sizable group of Americans that believes sanctions are an effective policy tool, but there are even more Americans that say they don’t know if sanctions are effective and there is also a small number that believes they are not effective. Most people don’t vote on foreign policy, and even fewer would decide their vote based on something as relatively arcane as sanctions policy. It seems likely that the only voters that would respond favorably to a hawkish message on sanctions relief are voters that were already inclined to vote for the more hawkish candidates anyway.
The Biden administration can point to voters in Florida that would be displeased by sanctions relief for Venezuela (never mind for the moment that sanctions relief would primarily benefit the people and ease the country’s economic crisis), but those people were never voting for Democratic candidates anyway. If there are specific blocs of voters that are deeply invested in a particular sanctions policy, they are typically already hardliners that wouldn’t be “gettable” no matter what Biden did or didn’t do. Who are the voters that would otherwise support Democratic candidates in the midterms but will switch to the other party because they dislike the idea of easing broad sanctions on a foreign country? I submit that these people do not exist, and so it makes no sense to worry about “losing” voters that aren’t real.
Hostility to sanctions relief also harms U.S. interests by undermining U.S. diplomacy, and an administration with more conviction would be in a position to drive that point home in its public messaging. Reflexive opposition to sanctions relief damages our government’s reputation and makes other governments unwilling to believe that it will honor its commitments. It locks our government into a cycle of worsening tensions that makes conflict more likely.
The inability of the U.S. government to deliver credible, lasting sanctions relief is one of the bigger impediments to successful negotiations with targeted governments, because the other side has no reason to believe that the U.S. will make good on its promises even if they make all of the concessions that Washington seeks. In order for sanctions to have any value for the U.S. in negotiations, they cannot be permanent and removing them must be a relatively straightforward and quick process. Viewed this way, hardline opponents of sanctions relief should be seen for what they are: the worst kind of obstructionists that are working to sabotage U.S. diplomatic efforts.
If I had to guess, I would say that any voters that are genuinely up for grabs respond favorably to displays of competence and policies that deliver significant results. Persisting with a policy that everyone can see isn’t working is not likely to impress anyone, and it creates the impression that the administration’s foreign policy is on autopilot and is indistinguishable from its predecessor’s. Providing sanctions relief to other countries that also results in reducing energy prices for Americans seems like a politically smart move rather than a perilous one, but to see that one would first have to get out of the defensive crouch that takes for granted that the hawks “own” these issues and cannot be beaten.