David Adesnik goes through the facts leading up to World War II to confirm that, no, U.S. sanctions did not provoke Japan. Aside from historical accuracy and rebutting an apparently common far-right-wing version of history, there is a serious and relevant purpose to Adesnik’s exercise:

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, speaks to Tatarstan regional leader Rustam Minnikhanov, back to camera, during a meeting at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, April 1, 2014. Minnikhanov, who visited Crimea to attend a congress of Crimean Tatars, discussed their demands with Putin. (AP Photo/RIA-Novosti, Mikhail Klimentyev, Presidential Press Service) Russian President Vladimir Putin being interviewed Tuesday. (AP Photo/RIA-Novosti, Mikhail Klimentyev, Presidential Press Service)

Today, clear thinking about sanctions is essential to counter Moscow’s aggression and Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. One lesson to learn from U.S. sanctions on Japan is that sanctions are a tactical consideration, which may pale in comparison to ideology and strategic objectives as potential causes of war. Another lesson is that even those sanctions threatening an adversary’s key resources may have little deterrent or punitive value in the absence of potent, well-placed military forces.

What we know of Vladimir Putin and Ali Khamenei’s respective ideologies and objectives is not encouraging. Yet the United States has the ability, if it has the will, to confront them with deterrent forces that can prevent war while sanctions take their toll.

There is a school of thought, frankly all too common in left-wing circles, that things going wrong in the world is usually traceable to some American provocation. President Obama at the onset of his term seemed convinced that Iran was wary of the U.S. because of its role in the 1953 coup. When Daniel Ortega complained about the Bay of Pigs as a great wrong, Obama protested that he was only a baby then (!); he chose neither to defend U.S. action against Cuba’s Communist dictatorship nor to point out how irrelevant that was to the actions of modern-day tin-pot dictators in our hemisphere. Our bad.

The notion that, by not giving offense or by not reacting to other’s offense, we will avoid conflict is near and dear to the hearts of the purveyors and defenders of the failed Obama foreign policy. We can’t put sanctions on place to keep the pressure on Iran because Iran will get up from the negotiations and leave. We would be acting provocatively. We shouldn’t put missiles in Europe, President Reagan was told, because that would be provocative to the Soviet Union. You see, anything to check our enemy will simply annoy them and bring on hostilities.

It is not simply WWII that prompts right-wing isolationists’ thinking in this fashion. Consider what Rand Paul had to say in 2009:


He argued against keeping our troops in other countries, referring to troops in now-allied countries like Germany and Japan. “We have to understand there is blowback from our foreign policy,” he warned in defense of his father’s views that 9/11 related to U.S. foreign policy (it didn’t justify 9/11, he hastened to clarify). Regarding former Soviet states, he said:

For example, we have to ask ourselves, “Who needs to be part of NATO? What does NATO need to be at this point?” One of the big things [for] the neocons—the people in the Republican Party sort of on the other side from where I come from—is they want Georgia to be part of NATO. Well, Georgia sits right on the border of Russia. Do you think that might be provocative to put them in NATO? NATO’s treaty actually says that if they’re attacked, we will defend them. So, if the treaty means something, that means all of a sudden we’re at war with Russia. If Georgia would had become, Bush wanted Georgia to become part of NATO, had they been part of NATO, we’d be at war with Russia right now. That’s kinda a scary thing. We have to decide whether putting missiles in Poland is gonna provoke the Russians. Maybe not to war, but whether it’s worth provoking them, or whether we have the money to do it.

As it turned out, not including Georgia and Ukraine in NATO made it easy for Russia to grab parts of previously sovereign nations. It turned out that pulling out missile defense systems out of Poland emboldened Russia. Refusing to protect our allies, it turns out, was really provocative. (It is an unusual view, by the way, in Republican circles to argue, as he did, that because North Korea it starves its people it can’t attack anyone.) And so it goes. Protecting free countries, extending alliances, you see, can always be provocative.

What we have learned or relearned during the Obama administration however is that weakness and inconsistency are provocative. That’s the view of other GOP contenders like former U.N. ambassador John Bolton (“Worst of all, the administration has forgotten the essence of Reagan’s understanding that American strength is not provocative to our adversaries; American weakness is provocative to our adversaries – and we’ve got a president that specializes in it!”). It’s the view of Sen. Marco Rubio (R–Fla.) as well, who in his masterful retort to Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) argued:

So with North Korea, we have sanctions. Why? Because they’re a terrorist government and an illegitimate one. Against Iran we have sanctions. Why? Because they support terrorism and they’re an illegitimate government. And against the Cubans we have sanctions. Why? Well, you just saw why. Sanctions are a tool in our foreign policy toolbox, and we, as the freest nation on Earth, are looked to by people in this country, and all around the world, to stand by them in their moment of need when they clamor for freedom and liberty and human rights. They look for America to be on their side, not for America to be cutting geopolitical deals or making it easier to sell tractors to the government there. We should be clear about these things.

Sanctions, troops, missiles, strong rhetoric — all of those can be provocative according to regimes that are looking for excuses for their own behavior.  Sharp diplomatic and economic action — keeping sanctions in place against Iran or cutting off funds to the Palestinian Authority for violating its obligations — might be provocative, the administration fears. And fear of provocation for the far right and far left is always reason for U.S. passivity. But at some point you have to reject the propaganda, finger-pointing and out-and-out distortions. One can’t adopt the enemy’s propaganda as your own foreign policy rubric. If you do, America will become cowed, defensive and resigned to allowing all sorts of aggression and bad behavior. It is important to have a president who instinctively and completely understands this.