The best way to think about the role of sanctions in American foreign policy is to regard it as an addiction.
Think about it. The inability to change the behavior of even the most rinky-dink nations must be enormously frustrating to those at the helm of the world’s lone superpower. This leads, not surprisingly, to the search for ways to assuage this sense of failure and reassure Americans of their perpetual global dominance. Sanctions fit the bill perfectly. First, because they can be sold as an alternative to war. Opponents of sanctions can thus be portrayed as either warmongers or pacifists, depending on their political profile. Second, since no meaningful measures of success or failure are ever discussed, success is entirely in the eye of the beholder. Thus, whatever happens can be attributed to sanctions —if it suits the government. Politicians can hardly be faulted for the eagerness with which they embrace sanctions. They offer the perfect escape from the real, but tedious, world of diplomatic negotiation.
Eventually, however, the political “high” provided by sanctions wears off. The nastiness of the world intrudes, and once again politicians become desperate for another fix. Friends try to warn Americans that Washington’s increasingly erratic behavior is beginning to hurt them as well, but how can they understand the burdens that America must bear as Leader of the Free World? Eventually, as Americans’ view of the world shrinks to the confines of the Washington Beltway, nothing but their own media-driven reality matters. Sanctions now provide the only semblance of calm, the only relief that politicians can rely on, and so resort to them becomes habitual.
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