Verifying the facts Psaki’s claim that there have been no recent sanctions against foreign leaders


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President Joe Biden has been criticized, including by some Democratic lawmakers, for having decided not to impose direct sanctions on Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, as US intelligence had concluded that he would play a central role in 2018 Had played in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi residing in the US.

The Biden government has imposed visa restrictions on 76 Saudi individuals who the government said were involved in the threat of dissidents overseas.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki defended bin Salman’s omission on Sunday, telling CNN that there are “more effective ways to ensure this doesn’t happen again” while “having room to work with the Saudis” in Areas in which it is left is consensual and a US national interest. Psaki said it was clear to Biden that he would “recalibrate” US-Saudi Arabia relations, including ending support for the Saudi war in Yemen.

It’s all fair enough. But Psaki also made another claim – a claim that Biden’s decision to avoid direct sanctions against bin Salman followed a precedent set by previous presidents.

“Historically, and even in the recent history of Democratic and Republican governments, sanctions have not been imposed on the leaders of foreign governments when we have diplomatic relations – even when we do not have diplomatic relations,” said Psaki.

Facts first: It is not true that even in the recent past “no sanctions have been imposed on the leaders of foreign governments”. In fact, all three of Biden’s predecessors, who took office in the 21st century, imposed direct sanctions on foreign leaders. Psaki made a tighter and more specific claim on Monday, saying the US had “normally” not imposed direct sanctions on leaders of countries with which it has diplomatic relations.

Gary Clyde Hufbauer, a non-resident senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics who studied sanctions, said Psaki’s Sunday claim was “too broad” given the list of leaders the US has actually imposed direct sanctions on. He added, “What Psaki was trying to say is that the US seldom or never sanctions the leaders of countries it considers important allies of the US, and neither does the leaders of nuclear opponents.”

The list of leaders against the US who have faced direct sanctions includes:

  • Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, sanctioned by President Donald Trump;
  • North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi, who were sanctioned by President Barack Obama;
  • Myanmar’s then leader Than Shwe, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, who were sanctioned by President George W. Bush.

It is a bit complex who qualifies to lead a foreign government. The official head of government of Iran is the President, but the ultimate authority, as the title suggests, is the Supreme Leader. Saudi Arabia is still officially ruled by King Salman, but the Crown Prince, his son, is the de facto ruler.

Regardless, Psaki’s claim went too far. Michael Beck, a sanctions expert for TradeSecure, LLC, said that looking at the list of sanctioned leaders, “It is a bit of an exaggeration to say that the United States does not or will not sanction foreign government leaders.”

The details of the sanctions against these leaders varied. These included travel restrictions, asset freezes, and bans on Americans doing financial business with them.

A narrower claim on Monday

Psaki narrowed down the claim at their daily press conference at the White House on Monday. This time she said: “Historically, through Democratic and Republican presidents, the United States has not usually sanctioned the heads of government in countries where we have diplomatic relations.”

The “non-typical” and the “countries where we have diplomatic relations” make Psaki’s claim on Monday more accurate than the claim she made on CNN on Sunday. (Psaki didn’t respond to an emailed request for comment on her Sunday entitlement.)

The US had different diplomatic relations with the countries whose leaders it sanctioned under Trump, Obama and Bush.

The US had no formal diplomatic relations with Iran or North Korea. At the time the sanctions were announced in 2011, it announced the end of its embassy operations in Libya.

The US had diplomatic relations with Zimbabwe at the time of the sanctions in 2003. The US had some diplomatic relations with Myanmar in 2007 when it was represented by an Chargé d’Affaires rather than an ambassador.

The US had diplomatic relations with Venezuela, Belarus and Syria at the time of the sanctions, but saw a break in relations over the next two years, with diplomats being expelled or withdrawn.

A complex subject

There are, of course, foreign leaders who have not directly sanctioned the US even though they have accused them of serious violations. For example, the US has imposed numerous sanctions on Russian individuals and organizations close to President Vladimir Putin, but has not specifically targeted Putin.

Michael Kimmage, a professor at the Catholic University of America who is an expert on US-Russia relations, noted that “given the overlapping ways in which Putin’s finances intersect with state-owned companies and the fortunes of his friends” , the question of what constitutes a direct sanction against Putin “does not allow for easy answers.” Hufbauer said that in cases like the late Idi Amin’s severe US sanctions against Uganda or the late Fidel Castro’s Cuba, an attempt to separate the sanctions against the country from the sanctions against the Führer is intended to create a “distinction without distinction” .

George Lopez, a Notre Dame University professor who previously sat on a United Nations panel of experts on monitoring and enforcing sanctions against North Korea, interpreted Psaki’s claim more generously than Hufbauer and Beck.

Lopez said that “by and large” the United States’ practice has been to “sanction all people directly under the leader” rather than directly sanctioning the leader. Traditionally, he said, the US attitude has been that “you don’t make politics personal at this level”.

Given this general US approach, Lopez argued that Psaki’s Sunday entitlement was “accurate enough”, although there were exceptions to the rule. Due to the many exceptions, we do not agree – although it is a good thing that Psaki became more precise the next day.

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