Trump wields sanctions hammer; experts wonder to what end

WASHINGTON (AP) — Call it the diplomacy of coercion.

The Trump administration is aggressively pursuing economic sanctions as a primary foreign policy tool to an extent unseen in decades, or perhaps ever. Many are questioning the results even as officials insist the penalties are achieving their aims.

Since taking office in January 2017, President Donald Trump has used an array of new and existing sanctions against Iran, North Korea and others. His Treasury Department, which oversees economic sanctions, has targeted thousands of entities with asset freezes and business bans. The State Department has been similarly enthusiastic about imposing its own penalties: travel bans on foreign government officials and others for human rights abuses and corruption in countries from the Americas to the Middle East, Africa and Asia.

At the same time, the administration is trying to reduce greatly the amount of U.S. foreign assistance, notably cutting money to Latin America and the Palestinians. The White House budget office is making plans to return billions of dollars in congressionally approved but unspent dollars to the Treasury. A similar effort was rejected by Congress last year.

The combination of more sticks and fewer carrots has created a disconnection between leveraging the might of America’s economic power and effectively projecting it, according to experts who fear the administration is relying too much on coercion at the expense of cooperation.

It also has caused significant tensions with American allies, especially in Europe, where experts say a kind of sanctions fatigue may be setting in. The decision this past week by the British territory of Gibraltar to release, over U.S. objections, an Iranian oil tanker that it seized for sanctions violations could be a case in point.

It’s rare for a week to go by without the administration announcing new sanctions.

On Thursday, the administration said it would rescind the visas of any crew aboard the Iranian tanker in Gibraltar. On Wednesday, Sudan’s former intelligence chief received a travel ban. Last week, the entire Venezuelan government was hit. More than 2,600 people, companies, ships and planes have been targeted so far since Trump took office.

“The daily pace is intense,” the treasury undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, Sigal Mandelker, said recently.

She and proponents of the administration’s foreign policy say sanctions are working and have denied Iran and its proxies hundreds of millions, if not billions, in dollars in revenue used for destabilizing activity in the Middle East and beyond. And, they note, the U.S. approach does not involve the vastly more expensive option of military action.

“Overuse of economic warfare is certainly a better alternative to the overuse of military warfare,” said Mark Dubowitz, the chief executive of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He has advocated for even broader sanctions.

Mandelker, whose office is in charge of economic sanctions, says sanctions alone “rarely, if ever, comprise the entire solution to a national security threat or human rights or corruption crisis.” They must, she said in a speech to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, be accompanied by other action to push U.S. national interests.

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