The Biden administration has imposed visa restrictions on 76 people from Saudi Arabia, according to which the administration is involved in threatening dissidents abroad, but the list does not include the heir to the throne.
All this is fair enough. But Psaki made another claim – the claim that Biden’s decision to avoid direct sanctions against bin Salman follows a precedent set by previous presidents.
“Historically, and even in recent history, the Democratic and Republican administrations have not imposed sanctions on foreign government leaders where we have diplomatic relations – and even where we do not have diplomatic relations,” Psaki said.
Facts in the first place: It is not true that “no sanctions have been imposed” on foreign government leaders, even in the recent past. In fact, all of Biden’s three predecessors, who took office in the 21st century, imposed direct sanctions on foreign leaders. On Monday, Psaki made a narrower and more accurate claim, saying the United States “usually” did not impose direct sanctions on leaders of countries with which it has diplomatic relations.
Gary Clyde Huffbauer, a non-resident senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics who studied sanctions, said Psaki’s claim on Sunday was “too broad” given the list of leaders against whom the United States has indeed imposed direct sanctions. He added: “What Psaki meant is that the United States rarely, if ever, sanctions the leaders of countries considered important allies of the United States, nor does it sanction the leaders of nuclear adversaries.”
The list of leaders against the United States, imposed with direct sanctions, includes:
- Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, who were sanctioned by President Donald Trump;
- North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, Syrian President Bashar Assad and then-Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi, who were sanctioned by President Barack Obama;
- The then leader of Myanmar, Tan Shwe, the President of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, and the President of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, were sanctioned by President George W. Bush.
There is some complexity about who qualifies as the leader of a foreign government. The official head of government of Iran is the president, but the supreme power is, as the title suggests, the Supreme Leader. Saudi Arabia is still officially ruled by King Salman, but the heir to the throne, his son, is the de facto ruler.
Nevertheless, Psaki’s claim went too far. Michael Beck, a sanctions expert at TradeSecure, LLC, said that when you look at the list of sanctioned leaders, “it’s a bit of an exaggeration to assume that the United States is not or will not sanction leaders of foreign governments.”
The specifics of sanctions against these leaders varied. These include travel restrictions, asset freezes and bans on Americans having financial transactions with them.
Closer claim on Monday
Psaki narrowed down his statement at a daily White House press briefing on Monday. This time, she said: “Historically, the United States, through democratic and republican presidents, has not usually sanctioned government leaders of countries in which we have diplomatic relations.”
“Unusually” and “the countries in which we have diplomatic relations” make Psaki’s statement from Monday more accurate than the statement she made on CNN on Sunday. (Psaki did not respond to an email request for comment on her request on Sunday.)
The United States has had different levels of diplomatic relations with countries whose leaders have sanctioned under Trump, Obama and Bush.
The United States has not had official diplomatic relations with Iran or North Korea. She announced the suspension of her embassy operations in Libya at the time she announced the sanctions in 2011.
During the sanctions in 2003, the United States did have diplomatic relations with Zimbabwe. The United States had partial diplomatic relations with Myanmar in 2007, when it was represented by a trustee rather than an ambassador.
The United States had diplomatic relations with Venezuela, Belarus and Syria during the sanctions, but relations broke down over the next two years, with diplomats expelled or withdrawn.
A complex topic
There are, of course, foreign leaders who have not been sanctioned directly by the United States, even while accusing them of serious abuse. For example, the United States has imposed numerous sanctions on Russians and entities close to President Vladimir Putin, but has not explicitly targeted Putin himself.
Michael Kimmage, a professor at the Catholic University of America who is an expert on U.S.-Russia relations, noted that “given the overlapping ways in which Putin’s finances intersect with the state-owned enterprise and the condition of his friends,” the question of what the direct a sanction against Putin “does not recognize simple answers.” Hufbauer said that in cases such as the heavy US sanctions against Uganda on the late Idi Amin or Cuba on the late Fidel Castro, the attempt to separate sanctions against the country from sanctions against the leader is to create a “distinction without distinction”.
George Lopez, a professor at the University of Notre Dame who previously sat on a UN expert group on monitoring and enforcing sanctions against North Korea, interprets Psaki’s statement more generously than Hoofbauer and Beck.
Lopez said that “in general” the United States’ practice is to “sanction all people directly under the leader” instead of directly sanctioning the leader. Traditionally, he said, the US attitude is that “you don’t make a political person at this level.”
Given this general US approach, Lopez argues that Psaki’s Sunday statement is “accurate enough”, although there are exceptions to the rule. Due to how many exceptions there have been, we respectfully disagree – although it’s good that Psaki became more accurate the next day.