UPDATE (30/8/2019): My sincerest apologies to early readers for the many grammatical and spelling errors in this essay. I wrote the piece in relative haste, and rushed to put it up — before doing a thorough audit, it seems. The crashing of my personal computer didn’t help matters either, as it forced me to hastily chip away at the post between calls at work. Anyway, all mistakes have (hopefully) been rectified.
The world of US foreign policy is dotted by an archipelago* of think tanks, media outlets, and advocacy groups, all of which sustain the dogma of American interventionism. One of the most influential is The Heritage Foundation, which has long supported the vision of an activist United States. Grounded in a robust neoconservatism, and coming to prominence during the Reagan years, The Heritage Foundation continues to advocate for the application of American hard power around the globe, believing it to be an indispensable source of order and prosperity. Lately, the think tank has argued strenuously for a more confrontational approach with Iran. To the extent that the Trump Administration is guided by intellectual clarity on the matter, it’s organisations like The Heritage Foundation that are supplying the necessary conceptual scaffolding for the government’s policy decisions.
A good example of Heritage’s muscular approach to the Islamic Republic came with the publication in June of a piece applauding President Trump’s decision to tighten economic sanctions against Iran. Authored by defence expert, James Jay Carafano, the article defends the president’s decision to abort a planned missile strike against Iran (proposed retaliation for the downing of an American-made unmanned drone), before justifying the expanded economic penalties the US elected to impose upon Tehran instead. Calling such penalties “surgical”, Carafano insists that the president has now shown the Islamic Republic a bright “red light”, rightly punishing the regime for what he calls “bad behaviour”.
We can be thankful that Carafano thinks well of President Trump’s eleventh-hour decision to cancel the United States’ planned strike against Iran. The rest of his argument, however, is grounded in the unspoken assumption that the US has the right and duty to try and maintain global order — as if delegated by Providence herself to police the international system and confront the forces of chaos. This has the lamentable effect of skewing his examination of the issue.
There are several grave problems with Carafano’s analysis, undermining his thesis at both the level of theory and history. Let’s take the second point first. Like so many Iran hawks, Carafano adopts an extremely narrow interpretation of the causes of the current crisis. He writes that the president opted for “precision-guided sanctions” in response to Iran’s “provocation[s]”. Certainly in a restricted sense, it’s true that Iran is responsible for fuelling the latest round of tensions with the US. But as I and others have written, Tehran’s actions over the last several weeks, condemnable though they may be, are largely a response to repeated American provocations in the 15 months since the US withdrew from the JCPOA. That act — which, despite Iran’s adherence to the terms of the deal, was made unilaterally — inaugurated the administration’s strategy of “maximum pressure”, which it has applied to Tehran as a way of forcing it to yield to Washington’s demands. This has involved a battery of rhetorical, pecuniary, and military moves designed to corral the Islamic Republic and strangle its economy.
As such, the provocative acts for which the US now “punishes” Iran are largely the result of unremitting American pressure, which has fostered the conditions for the present escalation of tensions. Whether this represents deliberate calculation or a failure to predict the consequences of blunt-force pressure is difficult to tell. But as if to underscore the point, former Bush official, Kori Schake, has remarked that most European governments believe the current uptick in Iran’s threatening behaviour is a product of Washington’s desire to force Tehran’s capitulation.
Carafano’s piece recognizes none of this context. This absence means that his analysis is almost entirely ahistorical, which inevitably makes it easier for him to establish clear lines of justification for American sanctions. The problem is that it reflects a highly distorted presentation of the causal sequence in question, and provides no illumination — beyond tired tropes concerning Iran’s incorrigible aggression — as to the reasons for Tehran’s recent activity.
We should also emphasise the fact that the imposition of sanctions upon Iran has already had a deleterious effect on the country’s economy. Far from being “surgical”, the consequences extend far beyond members of the ruling regime, and have begun to erode the lives of ordinary Iranians. US sanctions have asphyxiated Iran’s economic capacity, leading to a great deal of suffering amongst the populace. Unemployment has risen apace, whilst people’s life savings have been wiped out. Furthermore, the application of American economic penalties has made it far more difficult for Iranians battling life-threatening diseases to obtain the drugs they so desperately need. Recent news reports have suggested that many locals are on the verge of death as they are unable to receive the kind of treatment that could save their lives. Not only does Carafano not address the gravity of these issues; he also fails to consider the compounding effects of this latest round of sanctions.
All this is made worse by the fact that Carafano’s interpretation of the US’s sanctions regime against Iran is inconsistent with the Trump Administration’s own account. I’ll return to Carafano’s commentary on sanctions below, but his amnesia in this area needs to be noted. The administration itself has argued that the battery of responses mounted by the United States is designed to force Iran’s re-negotiation of the JCPOA — the theory being that Tehran will not be able to withstand Washington’s “maximum pressure” campaign indefinitely, and will be compelled to seek relief through capitulation. The strategy is based on the absurd proposition that under such circumstances, Iran is likely to do the president’s bidding — someting that has proven to be an abject failure. But what’s key is that the US has predicated its sanctions regime on the assumption that it will alter Iran’s behaviour. Carafano explicitly denies this.
So much for recent history. What of the theoretical issues with Carafano’s article? These, I’d argue, are even more serious. Two observations are worth highlighting.
First, his commentary reveals a lack of clarity concerning the purpose of sanctions, and indeed, the purpose of “punishment” in general. Theories of punishment suggest that there are three broad reasons for enacting some kind of penalty against another actor: retribution, rehabilitation, and deterrence. In the context of the international system, the last two purposes would imply an effort to effect some change in the offending state’s behaviour.** However, Carafano argues that the Trump Administration isn’t trying to modify Iran’s conduct. The only other alternative, then, is an expression of moral opprobrium as the animating principle for this new tranche of sanctions. But apart from contradicting official US government statements on its governing rationale, this view rests on an implausible interpretation of sanctions regimes. As the Council of Foreign Relations notes, sanctions are invariably imposed to alter the strategic behaviour of a state or non-state actor deemed to be a threat to vital interests or international norms. This is the reason for enacting them in the first place, upon which their practical utility is founded.
Carafano is either confused about the underlying logic of sanctions, or he’s equivocating on their purpose. He excoriates the Obama Administration for failing to enforce a “red line” against the Assad regime in Syria, arguing that this failure gave tacit permission to the Syrian government to continue its murderous campaign. But behind that criticism lies the assumption that American retaliation at the time — whether undertaken via sanctions or military strikes — was going to affect Assad’s behaviour. So why not in the case of Trump and Iran? It’s difficult to resist the conclusion that Carafano’s view represents a desperate ex post facto rationalisation of the (predictable) failure of Trumpian statecraft. Indeed, he explicitly acknowledges that sanctions aren’t likely to draw Tehran back to the “negotiating table any time soon” — tacit admission, perhaps, that Trump’s strategy wasn’t so “shrewd” after all.
Second, the broader assumptions underlying Carafano’s justification for the Trump Administration’s new sanctions regime are deeply concerning. It’s possible to understand why penalties might be imposed upon a country to dissuade it from acts that threaten the vital interests of the sanctioning state(s). But the kind of moralistic, unilateral action Carafano supports has to rely upon the grounding belief that the United States bears the transcendent duty to act as global policeman, and alone has the right to execute moral judgment over the conduct of others. This seems to be the best interpretation of Carafano’s laudatory article, in which he confidently avers that the US is right to apply sanctions against Iran to punish its “bad behaviour”.
Several cogent objections can be levelled at this conception of the US’s role in world affairs. Writing in The American Conservative earlier this year, Byzantine historian and seasoned Middle East observer, Daniel Larison, outlined four such rejoinders. I won’t recapitulate them in detail, but suffice it to say, they are difficult to counter. For one thing, no one has appointed the US to act in this role; doing so simply places it outside of — and indeed, above — the norms of the international system. What right, we may ask, does it have to act in this manner? The United States has simply arrogated the role of moral arbiter to itself. For another thing, the US is inconsistent, taking action to punish only those states it happens to despise. It works strenuously to strangle Iran economically for its supposed infractions, whilst leaving Saudi Arabia untouched — despite the Kingdom prosecuting an illegal war in Yemen with untold savagery. Finally, Larison notes that such a role lacks accountability, which means that the only restraint upon American action is an internal one. To accept this is to play hostage to fortune.
To these four points I’d briefly add two more. For the United States to act in this manner invites the kind of reckless decisions that have so successfully destabilised the Middle East recently. If the US believes itself unbeholden to the normal rules of international statecraft, then there is little to prevent it from pursuing an assertive foreign policy, particularly when it is fuelled by the conviction of American power as an unalloyed good. Conversely, to do nothing during times of crisis would be seen as a dereliction of duty. But as the past 16 years have demonstrated, chaos and suffering have followed in the wake of American interventionism in the Middle East.
And what of other states, and their self-perceived interests? While many American commentators, politicians, and thought leaders would claim that the US possesses a unique, inalienable role within world affairs, other countries might not be so sanguine about it. Then there are those states that emulate US assertiveness on a more local (though no less destructive) scale. The Saudis’ activity in Yemen and Syria may be highlighted as a good example of this phenomenon. American actions in foreign lands, then, may simply encourage other state (and non-state) actors to adopt activist foreign policies in their own spheres of influence — thereby adding to the sum total of global crises.
Carafano fails to grapple with observations like these, so committed is he to the axiom that the United States ought to engage the world as its chief arbiter. In so doing, he repeats the same old, ideological tropes that have sustained a supposedly conservative approach to US foreign policy and national security. Of course, this isn’t a unique view: American interventionism has long been a bi-partisan position in the US, enjoying approbation on both sides of the political aisle. For those inhabiting that world, anything else projects weakness and invites chaos. But to the extent that the US lacks strength and permits turmoil to thrive, then it’s precisely the ideas that movement conservatism cherishes — ideas blandly regurgitated in Carafano’s article — that have produced this state of affairs.
* I can’t claim this rather evocative description for myself. I owe it to Rod Dreher, the conservative journalist and writer, who first used it some months ago in a blog post on similar issues.
** This, of course, assumes that talk of “punishment” in the context of the international system is appropriate — something I would dispute (or at least heavily qualify).