The United States Congress is certainly not out to win foreign allies and, although it is dominated by Republicans, the majority of lawmakers seem bent on thwarting the White House at every turn.
On Thursday, the Senate passed a bill upping sanctions on North Korea, Iran and Russia requiring President Donald Trump’s signature. The bill was designed to circumvent the will of the Oval Office in the event no signature was forthcoming; then it will revert to Congress to be passed.
On this, the president’s hands are tied. Who could blame him if he feels his ability to direct foreign policy and conduct negotiations with foreign counterparts has been undermined!
From a common-sense perspective it is difficult to fathom Congress’s endgame in applying a new round of punitive measures against Russia, North Korea and Iran. North Korean sanctions only lend grist to the leader’s mill; his people believe they are under siege and threatened militarily and support the leader’s efforts to build a nuclear deterrent.
Kim Jong-un will starve his population before surrendering his country’s nuclear weapons cap-ability. In the past he has signalled his willingness to talk with the US leadership. Trump was formerly open to the idea but has since hardened his stance and will not rule out a military option that, if implemented, could have devastating consequences for South Korea and Japan.
Placing further sanctions on Russia is another counterproductive move. President Vladimir Putin wants cooperation with the US on a range of global issues and threats. Like Trump, he was until recently keen to open a new chapter in Russian-US relations. The new sanctions have effectively ended both leaders’ hopes and signal that Congress chooses enmity with Russia over friendship.
Should we seriously imagine that lawmakers have had sleepless nights over Ukraine or that sanctions will force Putin to relinquish Crimea? Or are they simply a manifestation of anger over Russia’s alleged meddling in US elections? Either way, inciting Putin to retaliate does nothing towards conflict-solutions or ending the terrorist scourge.
Putin has exercised patience. But the bill has galvanised him to order hundreds of US diplomats home and Russia has temporarily seized two of America’s country estates mirroring President Barack Obama’s moves against Russia in December. Moscow does not have the capability to dent America’s mighty economy, but it can stymie US initiatives in the UN Security Council and make life difficult for the US military in Syria and elsewhere. By extension, Russia is now thrown into a closer embrace with China and other US geopolitical competitors.
Europe vulnerable on energy front
“From a common-sense perspective it is difficult to fathom Congress’s endgame in applying a new round of punitive measures against Russia, North Korea and Iran.”
European states reliant on Russian gas are vulnerable to repercussions because the new sanctions target individuals and companies working in the energy sector. At stake is a $10 billion (Dh36.73 billion) Gazprom pipeline scheduled to pipe gas to Europe next year and an existing pipeline that supplies European countries via Ukraine. Russia has warned that ‘third parties’ could be negatively impacted.
Washington is not only heading towards an even frostier relationship with Moscow but also with Brussels. EU President Jean-Claude Juncker has warned of swift action in the event the sanctions damage Europe’s energy security.
France’s Foreign Ministry described the sanctions against all three targeted states infringing international law. Germany’s Foreign Minister and Austria’s Federal Chancellor issued a statement stressing “Europe’s energy supply is a matter for Europe and not for the United States of America.”
Soft selective sanctions are nothing more than mere irritants. Harsh sanctions usually propel leaderships to pull up the drawbridge. That said, in the case of Iran they were effective over the long term in persuading the regime to sit around the negotiating table, but more often than not, they fail.
Whatever one’s take may be on the narrowly drafted nuclear deal that neglected to take into account Iran’s belligerence towards its neighbours and its terrorist-supporting activities, the fact is that Tehran is in compliance as certified by the nuclear watchdog the IAEA. This bill, premised on Iran’s launch of a satellite, seems like a pretext in order to goad the ayatollahs into abrogating their nuclear commitments which Iranian hardliners are now calling for. If Republicans aren’t approving of Obama’s deal, a more honest approach would be for the US to withdraw just as it withdrew from the Paris agreement on climate change.
Sanctions not only hurt governments and high officials but also ordinary people to which Iraqis, who suffered ten years of crippling sanctions, will surely attest. Very rarely do they ‘persuade’ antagonistic states to alter policies, a reality known to most lawmakers. Decades of sanctions on Cuba only solidified Fidel Castro’s resolve to make his country independent of its giant neighbour. Economic sanctions against Syria were imposed in the hope that the Al Assad regime would crumble under their weight.
Lashing out without clear goals and with little regard for consequences on tried and true allies will not make the US safer or enhance its diplomatic influence. What is there for America to gain from Congressional cage-rattling other than less friendly friends, more united adversaries, not to mention a president whose hands have been forcibly removed from the foreign policy rudder?
Linda S. Heard is an award-winning British political columnist and guest television commentator with a focus on the Middle East.