Less than three weeks have passed since President Trump spoke on the phone with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, setting off a cascade of destabilizing events that have endangered U.S. national security, the Middle East and the world. What has happened after Turkey’s invasion of northeastern Syria is a disaster—tens of thousands of civilians have been forced to flee, hundreds of Islamic State fighters have escaped, and Turkish-backed rebels have been credibly accused of atrocities against the Kurds.
Accountability for perpetrators and support for the Kurdish people are essential. But in Congress’s bipartisan condemnation of the Turkish incursion, Republicans and Democrats alike have jumped to pursuing one policy response: harsh sanctions.
In the White House announcement on Oct. 14 of sanctions on Turkey, Trump said, “I am fully prepared to swiftly destroy Turkey’s economy if Turkish leaders continue down this dangerous and destructive path.”
This is an unmistakable echo of the failed U.S. strategy of “maximum pressure” on Iran and Venezuela. And just as with those two countries, it would be a humanitarian and geopolitical disaster.
In so much of our foreign policy, we rely on muscle memory and a limited toolbox to decide the best course of action. And too often sanctions regimes are ill considered, incoherent and counterproductive.
Research has shown that sanctions rarely achieve their desired goals. In the worst-case scenario, they hurt the people of a country — generally the very people we’re purporting to help — without making a dent in the country’s behavior. And in the case of human-rights abusers, research suggests that more abuses typically occur with economic sanctions in place than without them.
Sanctions are not meant to be an end in themselves, but we too often use them as a lever without a plan for what comes after, whether they achieve the desired result or not.
After years of improving relations between the United States and Iran, the sanctions put in place by the Trump administration have instead devastated that country’s middle class and increased hostility toward the United States, with tensions between the two countries rising to dangerous levels.
Addressing the root of the problem requires a foreign policy that doesn’t prioritize warfare—whether military or economic.
The sanctions have simultaneously strengthened the Iranian regime’s credibility at home and united human-rights activists and the Iranian leadership in opposition to the strategy. One dire effect of the sanctions has been an entirely preventable shortage of life-saving medicine. A group of Iranian women’s rights activists recently wrote, “While sanctions proponents claim to care for the Iranian people, their policies have left an entire nation weary, depressed and hopeless. Sanctions, and economic pressure, target the fabric of society.”
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The same backward logic was applied to Venezuela, where the Trump administration intended to squeeze Nicolás Maduro out of power through increasingly sweeping sanctions on the state oil company and then the central bank—only to find itself involved in an intractable crisis that risks descending into civil war.
There’s no question that the bulk of the economic crisis in Venezuela was caused by Maduro’s government, which inherited fixable problems and failed to address them. But U.S. sanctions have worsened Venezuela’s economic disaster—and handed Maduro a propaganda victory. He can now shift blame to the United States, while retaining his grip on power.
Both of these cases point to a larger problem. Too often, U.S. policymakers are quick to place sanctions on regimes we disagree with, without considering the likelihood of success or the humanitarian consequences.
This is not a catch-all criticism of sanctions. The use of the Global Magnitsky Act, aimed at specific individuals responsible for gross human rights violations, can be an important mechanism for accountability if they are used consistently and not simply for our geopolitical rivals. And locally led boycott or divestment campaigns, such as the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, can be meaningful ways for those impacted to seek a peaceful resolution.
But economic and sector sanctions are too often designed to inflict maximum pain on civilians, not empower them. We had a full embargo on Cuba for decades, with little effect on the Cuban government but much pain inflicted on ordinary Cubans. It was only through diplomacy and direct conversation that President Barack Obama and the United States made progress in Cuba.
The same strategies should be applied to Syria. We could have negotiated a buffer zone in northern Syria, so that people outside of the Assad regime’s control could create a peaceful life, without our greenlighting the slaughter of innocent Kurdish lives. We could ban weapons sales to Turkey (as Congress is contemplating), limiting Erdogan’s ability to wage war without targeting the Turkish people.
But addressing the root of the problem requires a foreign policy that doesn’t prioritize warfare—whether military or economic.
We need a vision for a U.S. foreign policy that is rooted in the experiences of people directly affected and is sincere about putting human rights and democracy first. Questioning and changing the near-automatic reliance on sanctions is fully compatible with advancing our interests and defending national security. It’s time to stop relying on the same failed playbook.