Nahal Toosi reports on the political barriers to sanctions relief:
In recent months, as Biden has mulled reducing such penalties against countries such as Venezuela and Iran, he’s run headlong into opposition in Congress. Some lawmakers, knowing the topic will play well on the campaign trail [bold mine-DL], vow to do everything they can to stop the sanctions from being lifted.
It is true that there is always domestic political resistance to sanctions relief. Many critics of Biden’s resistance to lifting sanctions have noted that this is one of the main reasons why the president hasn’t made necessary changes to the failed “maximum pressure” policies he inherited from Trump. The fear of hawkish backlash has caused the administration to move slowly or not at all in moving away from sanctions policies that they have previously admitted don’t work. All of that has been clear enough over the last eighteen months, but what if the hawkish backlash isn’t as significant as the administration believes?
This raises some important questions: do voters care at all about sanctions policies come election time, and if they don’t why is hostility to sanctions relief considered so politically advantageous? Polling often shows broad public support for imposing sanctions on other states, because sanctions are perceived as low-cost, low-risk measures that penalize other governments for their abuses or other undesirable activities. It doesn’t follow that there must be equally broad opposition to providing sanctions relief if that has a chance of advancing U.S. interests. The assumption that bashing sanctions relief “plays well” on the campaign trail is one that hawks hold, but is it true? It could be, but this issue deserves more scrutiny.
According to the Eurasia Group Foundation’s annual survey, there is a sizable group of Americans that believes sanctions are an effective policy tool, but there are even more Americans that say they don’t know if sanctions are effective and there is also a small number that believes they are not effective. Most people don’t vote on foreign policy, and even fewer would decide their vote based on something as relatively arcane as sanctions policy. It seems likely that the only voters that would respond favorably to a hawkish message on sanctions relief are voters that were already inclined to vote for the more hawkish candidates anyway.
Daniel Larison is a weekly columnist for Antiwar.com and maintains his own site at Eunomia. He is former senior editor at The American Conservative. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.