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Penalty Box

How Sanctions Trap Policymakers

A representation of Vladimir Putin, October 21, 2010. Vladimir Konstantinov / Courtesy Reuters

In recent months, U.S. President Barack Obama has imposed multiple rounds of economic sanctions on Russia. Their purpose, according to the president, is threefold: to punish Moscow for its intrusion in Ukraine, to deter it from further destabilizing the region, and, ultimately, to persuade it to reverse course and pull out of Ukraine entirely.

Obama has often relied on sanctions to address difficult foreign policy challenges. His aides have described them as the prudent middle path between intervening militarily and standing idly by. Over the past few years, he has put them to use against Iran, Libya, Russia, Sudan, Syria, Myanmar (or Burma), and North Korea. But this is not merely an Obama phenomenon: President George W. Bush sanctioned many of the same countries, and President Bill Clinton did too. Nor is it purely an executive branch trend. Where Obama has been reluctant to impose sanctions -- for instance,

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