The problem with this moral logic is that besieging an oppressive regime usually harms not the oppressor but the oppressed. In a 2019 study, the economists Antonis Adam and Sofia Tsarsitalidou found that when the United States sanctions an autocratic government, civil liberties get worse. A 2020 article in the Journal of Development Studies found that both American and United Nations sanctions lead to lower life expectancy. As the political scientists Dursun Peksen and Cooper Drury have explained, dictators respond to embargoes by hoarding scarce resources, and using them to reward their cronies and starve their opponents, thus further entrenching their power. “They think they are hurting President Maduro,” a Venezuelan woman whose child couldn’t get epilepsy medicine told the German media outlet Deutsche Welle in 2019, “and they’re really hurting the people.”
America’s sieges might be more defensible — or at least briefer — if they stood a reasonable chance of success. The sanctions on Iran that the United States and the U.N. imposed during Barack Obama’s presidency harmed ordinary Iranians. But their intent was to convince Iran’s government to compromise on its nuclear program, not utterly capitulate, or give up power. And, arguably, they helped achieve that relatively modest goal.
By contrast, none of America’s current sieges are married to remotely realistic objectives. Despite America’s efforts to oust them, Mr. Maduro and President Bashar al-Assad of Syria are more firmly in control today than when the United States imposed its harshest sanctions. After more than a decade of escalating punishments aimed at pressuring North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons, that nation possesses as many as 60 of them. Iran is closer to the bomb than it was when the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign began, and just as influential across the Middle East.
Despite this, America’s other forever war retains substantial bipartisan support. That’s especially true in Congress, where politicians who have lost their appetite for deploying troops see an apparently cost-free way to signal their opposition to repressive and adversarial governments — and don’t care if the real costs are borne by the suffering people they claim to support.
To its credit, the Biden administration is reviewing whether sanctions are “unduly hindering responses to the Covid-19 pandemic.” But the agony caused by America’s sieges didn’t begin when the virus hit, and won’t end when it passes.
Mr. Biden wants to re-enter the Iran nuclear deal, which would entail lifting nuclear sanctions on Tehran. However, Secretary of State Antony Blinken has promised that America’s numerous non-nuclear sanctions will remain. He has called the 2019 law that threatens foreign companies doing business in Syria with secondary sanctions a “very important tool.” He’s proposed that the United States “more effectively target” sanctions on Venezuela, yet suggested that America’s siege of North Korea — which has forced multiple international charities to leave the country — isn’t tough enough.
Why are policies that have proved so ineffective and immoral so hard to undo? Because abandoning them would require admitting hard truths: North Korea will not abandon its nuclear weapons. Iran will remain a regional power. Mr. Assad, Mr. Maduro and the Communist government in Havana aren’t going anywhere. America’s leaders would rather punish already brutalized populations than concede the limits of American power.