Stuart Levey departs
Stuart Levey, who headed the Treasury Department's sanctions programs aimed at Iran and other rogue regimes and reconceived how economic sanctions could be applied, is retiring. Former staff and those who know him well tell me the stated reason is the real one -- six and a half grueling years is enough, and the time has come for him to move on.
Conservatives and liberals, whether supportive or critical of the strategy behind economic sanctions, uniformly praise him. A senior Senate staffer intimately involved in Iran policy e-mailed me upon Levey's resignation:
What Stuart has done is totally transformational. He basically rewrote the book on sanctions and economic warfare -- discovering that the U.S. had massively more leverage than anyone before imagined. It's not just Iran. It's North Korea and Al Qaeda too. The guy is an American hero.
A former senior adviser echoed that sentiment:
Stuart has revolutionized the way our government and others around the world use sanctions, creating the economic equivalent of precision-guided weapons that have crippled the financial networks of terrorists, weapons proliferaters, and rogue regimes. His accomplishments at Treasury are truly remarkable."
Others involved in sanctions policy suggest that he could have been more effective had he had more support and experienced less infighting. One sanctions expert reminds me that sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran have still not been issued, and no foreign, non-Iranian bank has been sanctioned for its involvement with Iran.
Some in Congress are fretting that our sanctions efforts will be hampered by Levey's departure. But those who have worked with his named replacement, Assistant Secretary David Cohen, tell me Cohen and Levey were close personal friends, and Cohen performed admirably in his post.
But what should this really tell us about sanctions policy? Levey, I think, ultimately proved the critics of sanctions policy correct. If one of the most diligent, brilliant and creative public servants could not harness the power of economic sanctions to halt the Iranian nuclear program, isn't that forceful evidence the policy -- not the execution -- was fundamentally flawed?
The point of sanctions was not to inflict pain on the Iranian people; it was to force the country's despots to change their behavior. We have seen no evidence of this. A computer virus and some well-timed car accidents slowed the progress of Iran's nuclear program, but not the regime's determination to obtain nuclear weapons. And Iran's influence through surrogate terrorist groups continues to increase, most recently in Hezbollah's virtual takeover of Lebanon. Iran is still on the rise; the U.S. is still in retreat in the region.
None of this is attributable to Levey's lack of diligence. Economic sanctions were, I suppose, an experiment worth trying. (And had they not be delayed by 18 months because of fruitless and counterproductive "engagement," they would have gotten up to speed faster.) But now we see that sanctions critics were right all along. Even the best sanctions efforts innovatively implemented have failed to meet our objectives. We need to change the regime, not the rulers' hearts and minds.
| January 25, 2011; 2:05 PM ET
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