Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends a conference in the Saudi capital Riyadh on October 2018.
Biden's balancing act with MBS
11:09 - Source: CNN
Washington CNN  — 

President Joe Biden has faced criticism, including from some Democratic lawmakers, for deciding not to impose direct sanctions on Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia for what US intelligence has concluded was his central role in the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a permanent resident of the US.

Biden’s administration imposed visa restrictions on 76 Saudi individuals the administration says have been involved in threatening dissidents overseas, but the list did not include the crown prince.

Defending the omission of bin Salman on Sunday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on CNN that there are “more effective ways to make sure this doesn’t happen again” while also leaving “room to work with the Saudis” on areas where there is mutual agreement and a US national interest. Psaki said Biden has been clear that he is going to “recalibrate” the US-Saudi relationship, including by ending support for the Saudi war in Yemen.

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

“Historically, and even in recent history, Democratic and Republican administrations, there have not been sanctions put in place for the leaders of foreign governments where we have diplomatic relations – and even where we don’t have diplomatic relations,” Psaki said.

Facts First: It’s not true that there “have not been sanctions put in place” against the leaders of foreign governments even in the recent past. In fact, all three of Biden’s predecessors who took office in the 21st century imposed direct sanctions on foreign leaders. Psaki made a narrower and more accurate claim on Monday, saying the US has “typically” not imposed direct sanctions on leaders of countries with which it has diplomatic relations.

Gary Clyde Hufbauer, a nonresident senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics who has studied sanctions, said Psaki’s Sunday assertion “is too broad” given the list of leaders against whom the US has indeed imposed direct sanctions. He added, “What Psaki meant to say is that the US seldom if ever sanctions the leaders of countries regarded as important US allies, nor does it sanction the leaders of nuclear adversaries.”

The list of leaders against the US has hit with direct sanctions includes:

There is some complexity about who qualifies as a leader of a foreign government. Iran’s official head of government is the President, but the ultimate authority is, as the title suggests, the Supreme Leader. Saudi Arabia is still officially led 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 with the firm TradeSecure, LLC, said that when you consider the list of sanctioned leaders, “it’s a bit of an exaggeration to suggest that the United States has not or will not sanction leaders of foreign governments.”

The specifics of the sanctions on these leaders varied. They included travel restrictions, asset freezes, and bans on Americans having financial dealings with them.

A narrower claim on Monday

Psaki narrowed the claim at her daily White House press briefing on Monday. She said this time: “Historically, the United States, through Democratic and Republican presidents, has not typically sanctioned government leaders of countries where we have diplomatic relations.”

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

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

The US did not have formal diplomatic relations with Iran or North Korea. It announced the suspension of its embassy operations in Libya at the time it announced the sanctions in 2011.

The US did have diplomatic relations with Zimbabwe at the time of the sanctions in 2003. The US had partial diplomatic relations with Myanmar in 2007, when it was represented by a charge d’affaires rather than an ambassador.

With Venezuela, Belarus and Syria, the US had diplomatic relations at the time of the sanctions but saw the relationships fracture over the following two years, with diplomats being expelled or withdrawn.

A complex subject

There are, of course, foreign leaders the US has not sanctioned directly even while accusing them of serious malfeasance. For example, the US has imposed numerous sanctions on Russian individuals and entities close to President Vladimir Putin but has not explicitly targeted Putin himself.

Michael Kimmage, a Catholic University of America professor who is an expert on US-Russia relations, noted that “given the overlapping ways in which Putin’s finances intersect with state-owned enterprise and the fortunes of his friends,” the question of what constitutes a direct sanction against Putin “doesn’t admit simple answers.” Hufbauer said that in cases like the severe US sanctions on the Uganda of the late Idi Amin or the Cuba of the late Fidel Castro, trying to separate sanctions on the country from sanctions on the leader is to create a “distinction without a difference.”

George Lopez, a Notre Dame University professor who previously sat on a United Nations expert panel for monitoring and implementing sanctions on North Korea, interpreted Psaki’s claim more generously than Hufbauer and Beck did.

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