When the World Puts Sanctions on the U.S.

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As I post this, it’s been announced that Donald Trump plans to reinstate all sanctions against Iran. I say it may be time soon for him to get a dose of his own warped medicine: international sanctions against the United States. And like many sanction initiatives in the past, this one would be meant as restorative justice against a strongman.

First, consider so far that the debate on whether Trump is a fascist has been lacking a third dimension. Even when Yale philosophy professor Jason Stanley gave his short video on fascism for the Times, he started with a qualifying reminder, “I mean he’s not calling for a genocide or imprisoning his own people without due process.”

Like the target of his criticisms, Stanley thought of Americans first. What about the rest of the world that Trump imperils?

And lately the question of vigorously and successfully fighting Trump has been pinned to the “Blue Wave” that might take Congress mere weeks away. Americans are still presuming they will be the last and only line of defense against him.

This isn’t so, nor can we let it be so. There has been a lot of hand-wringing over Trump ruining America’s international prestige and having the U.S. leave the moral high ground. But he didn’t just leave the high ground, he salted the earth afterwards. And I have yet to see the logic followed to its natural conclusion: if Trump is indeed evolving into a fascist dictator then he reduces the U.S. to a rogue state that must be dealt with by the international community.

The reflexive response of Fox News anchors and those on the right will be that the premise is more than inflammatory, it’s ridiculous. We are, after all, talking about the United States. Not North Korea or Eritrea or Syria.

But to go back to Professor Stanley’s qualifier, just because a fascist doesn’t use all the methods in the playbook doesn’t mean he hasn’t used some. We have a president today who threatens his political opponents, calls a free press the enemy of the people, has inspired violence both at home and abroad (the Nigerian army just invoked Trump to justify firing on rock-throwing protesters), has blatantly ignored the gruesome murder of a U.S. permanent resident and prominent journalist, is astoundingly corrupt and interferes repeatedly via public statement with Senate investigations. Meanwhile his allies and fellow travelers have disenfranchised citizens of their voting rights. And if that isn’t enough, Trump now threatens American citizenship rights.

The conversation so far has been about Trump’s conduct and U.S. prestige, but for a rogue state, the leader’s conduct usually offers the evidence for the definition.

Americans who bristle at such a label and who would resent anyone interfering in the internal affairs of their country forget that in their name, the U.S. Government has applied economic sanctions for decades to coerce better behavior and regime change in apartheid-era South Africa, Iran, Cuba, Vietnam, China, North Korea, Sudan, Venezuela and the list goes on.

If they are honest with themselves, they’ll realize their objection to this being used against their country is an emotional, visceral one. They don’t like joining this sinister club because a) the U.S. is a developed nation, which is quite beside the point; and b) they are desperate to cling to the myth that the U.S. is still a moral force for good in the world.

I suggest individual Americans, most of them, in fact, make up that force for good. But their current government does not. And those who say they shouldn’t be punished for the actions of a president that many of them now despise (and the majority never voted for) forget the target of sanctions is the administration, not ordinary people. International sanctions went on for years against Myanmar long before Westerners ever heard of the Rohingya and long before Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest. It’s funny how we Westerners are content to let citizens of a nation in Asia or Africa endure privations in pursuit of democracy, yet we balk at the idea they could be imposed on us. But the chickens have some roosting to do.

Even if America is allowed a pass over its eroding democracy and internal abuses of human rights (children of illegal immigrants in cages), our newest rogue state threatens world stability, sometimes on a weekly basis. Ronald Reagan once called the Soviet Union an “evil empire” and took us to the brink of nuclear war in 1983, but no one doubted that in the clash of wills, the U.S. ultimately stood for values shared by its allies such as Canada, Britain, France and other nations across Western Europe and elsewhere.

We have a president today who either conflates his interests with those of the nation or worse, sees his personal interests as paramount. He is an open friend to and financial partner with cruelly despotic regimes. He’s willing to excuse or overlook assassinations and terrorist behavior.

Keep in mind, these are the kinds of things that Washington cited to justify, in part, an assassination attempt on Muammar Gaddafi, making his home one of the bombing targets for Operation El Dorado Canyon in Tripoli in 1986.

No one sane would advocate bombing Mar-a-Lago (except on aesthetic grounds), but the international community is surely entitled now to treat its owner as a diplomatic pariah, worthy of sanctions — especially given that the man himself shows no signs of learning from his mistakes.

He stood before the UN on September 25 and said, “We reject globalism.” The very next day, he once more adopted his Old Testament-Avenger role and promised the U.S. would “get very angry” if there was a slaughter in Syria. There are still U.S. embassies left without permanent ambassadors, and his foreign policy is mainly a one-man show (macabre vaudeville). The reality TV star who pushed for so long to have a grotesque military parade on Veterans Day — foiled in the end by the cost — will not be content until he gets a real battlefield as his backdrop. There’s nothing a fascist relishes more than a good war.

Is it any surprise then that we get Trump’s spiteful move to reinstate sanctions on Iran?

Having never fully recovered from the humiliation of the Hostage Crisis, right-wingers have continually demonized Iran, ignoring its efforts — whether reluctant or sincere — to abide by the 2015 nuclear deal. Benjamin Netanyahu kept up his shrill warnings for years over a nuclear bomb being imminent for Iran, so much so that Jon Stewart could mock these cynical tactics to hilarious effect on The Daily Show. Obama saw through Netanyahu; Trump prefers to be an enthusiastic ally. It is not so much that Trump may even desire war with Iran as Netanyahu wants one, the MAGA base would love it, and far-right Republicans have always yearned for a Rambo-esque payback.

That will be the time when the international community will have to act and impose its own sanctions on the U.S. There were those who sat out the Iraq War — Canada prominently refused to join the invasion. But we will need more this time than opt-outs and those who prefer to sit on their hands, we’ll need other nations to actively oppose Trump, because the next war will not even have the pretext of mistaken intelligence. After all, what intelligence? Who needs it? Why would his administration even bother to go through the motions?

True, the U.S. intelligence agencies have so far been unanimous in rejection of the fairy tale of a “400-pound guy” on his bed in New Jersey as responsible for interference in the 2016 elections. But the FBI also seemed inviolate before the shame of a week-long background check on Judge Kavanaugh. The next war for America will not happen with a careful intellectual rationale. It will start with a transparent excuse. In true fascist tradition, it will be the strong crushing the weak and hopelessly outmatched.

Sanctions may prove mostly symbolic, just as sanctions so often are. Rejected by the West, Myanmar blithely allowed its infrastructure to crumble — with great slabs of mold on its apartment blocks and rusting vintage cars on the streets of Yangon — while it soldiered on with investments from China. Apartheid-era South Africa found a willing seller of weapons and nuclear arms in Israel. The U.S. would manage. But sanctions can sometimes prove surprisingly effective and take their toll. Ask anyone who stood out in the hot sun in line for the pumps during the OPEC oil embargo in 1974.

And despite what Trump shouts at his rallies, America is not invulnerable. Never mind sanctions, Britain is learning what a nightmare it is to extricate itself from decades of benign trade ties with Europe. Trump has already chosen a foolish trade war with China, which would no doubt be happy to pile on should a sanctions coalition build.

Having a crushing long-term effect on the U.S. is not really the point anyway. The goal of such pressure is to force the real lawmakers in Congress to take back the machinery of democracy, and we know ambitious members of Congress do prefer having other allies.

Every day brings its fresh outrages and saber-rattling, and Trump cannot be viewed anymore as a brief aberration while the U.S. insists it’s still the global policeman. It’s time to persuade Americans to use that special ingenuity they’ve so often relied on in the past to bring about true reform. Their current president is the final wake-up call for some to realize they don’t lead the world, they must live in it and cooperate with others.

If that effort cannot come from the American people — misdirected, mocked, disenfranchised, threatened, arrested — it must come from the democratic nations beyond Trump’s range of bullying. They will be the ones who can still embody that spirit once used to face enormous odds and fight goose-stepping soldiers.

The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer captured the essence of the Trump regime when he wrote in early October, “The cruelty is the point.” If so, then civilization must be the response. The answer must be heard through the collective voices of not only Americans, but those of other nations who share their values.

Writer person. Books - Prevail, The Karma Booth, Gangs in Canada; in June 2021, Winged Bull, a bio of Henry Layard, the Victorian era’s Indiana Jones.

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