Needed Waivers

President Clinton is right to attempt to dilute the impact of US statutes such as the Helms-Burton law and the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act. Their main target may be unfriendly regimes in Cuba, Iran, or Libya, but they do peripheral damage to friends.

And the friends have been objecting for years. Officials of the European Union have called the laws, which require sanctions against foreign companies that do business in Iran, Libya, or Cuba, "illegal."

As part of a long-term plan to solidify US-Europe economic relations, Mr. Clinton seized the occasion of a recent conference on world trade in Geneva to show allies their complaints are heard on the other side of the Atlantic too - at least in the White House.

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The president's decision to try to broaden his authority under law to waive sanctions against foreign companies doing business with Iran or Cuba is sure to draw fire in Congress. The legislators who shaped the laws saw them as a way of punishing countries that have sponsored terrorism or, in the case of Cuba, that have simply been a thorn in Uncle Sam's side for decades.

The laws have considerable political appeal in the United States, given the unpopularity of the targeted regimes. But their political appeal has to be weighed against the harm they've done to American interests abroad. Much of that harm comes from general ill will directed toward any country - and the US has no peers in this regard - that tries to extend its laws beyond its borders.

Clinton's readiness to waive sanctions, and to seek congressional approval to extend waivers beyond the limits now written into law, has smoothed relations to a degree. But one of the sharpest critics of the US, France, complains that extended waivers still leave intact the notion that the US can lob its laws abroad. A French company, along with a Russian one and a Malaysian one, faces US sanctions for helping Iran develop a new gas field.

The French make a habit of tweaking Uncle Sam. But they have a point in regard to these laws. Economic and diplomatic sanctions have their place as means of applying pressure on misbehaving nations. But they're best applied in clear-cut cases (e.g., Iraq and Serbia, or even in response to India's nuclear tests). When they're applied scattershot as a way of getting other countries to toe a US-drawn line, clarity of purpose is out the window.

The laws Clinton is now maneuvering to waive were a bad idea from the start.

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