WASHINGTON -- Top Obama administration officials used the 10th anniversary of the Treasury Department's Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence to tout sanctions as a tool of foreign policy amid the president's stated shift away from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Sanctions are becoming "increasingly important tools" for the Obama administration's foreign policy, said Under Secretary For Terrorism And Financial Intelligence David Cohen.
"It is sometimes said that financial sanctions are a 'new form of warfare,'" he said. "While that overstates the case -- real war is decidedly different, and we should never forget that -- there is no mistaking that the tools we have developed and deployed deliver real and meaningful impact."
Sanctions fit with the administration's preferred maxim on foreign policy, "Don't do stupid stuff," by providing an alternative to war or military assistance.
While the use of force has been ruled out for Ukraine, Obama has said that "all options are on the table" with Iran. The administration has thus far declined to provide military assistance to Ukraine and refused to provide lethal aid to Syrian rebels, though the Obama administration last week proposed training moderate rebels
Lew said sanctions brought Iran into negotiations with Western countries over its nuclear program, and he added that Russia's sluggish economic growth was proof that sanctions have imposed a "cost" over the invasion of Crimea.
Despite the promotion of sanctions as a tool of U.S. foreign policy, former President George W. Bush's national security adviser Stephen Hadley warned that they were not a panacea.
"People seem to turn what is a tactic into a strategy," Hadley said. "We have to not get seduced by sanctions and their visibility and their effectiveness."
He warned that the risk of sanctions is that they have become so efficient that they are thought of as a "silver bullet."
Lew acknowledged Russian support for rebels had continued in Ukraine, even as sanctions have imposed a "cost."
"There is evidence that Russia continues to allow the free flow of weapons, funds, and fighters across its borders and President Putin’s next steps are still not clear," Lew said.
But while the panelists touted the success of sanctions, few had answers about how easy it would be to undo sanctions and restore market confidence once a policy outcome was met. The question is particularly relevant with Iran if Western nations reach a final agreement with Tehran over its nuclear program.
Former Representative Jane Harman (Democrat-California), president of the Woodrow Wilson Center, said a vote in Congress to remove sanctions on Iran would be a difficult feat.
"It would take Congress understanding that Israel was supportive of the deal in order for Congress to eliminate sanctions," Harman said, but she acknowledged that there could be "adjustments" made to them.