A Fight We Don't Need

It was bad enough that President Clinton signed the Helms-Burton act, which threatens to ignite a tit-for-tat trade war with our friends and allies. Now Congress has sent him a bill that would make things even worse.

Helms-Burton provides that United States citizens can sue foreign firms if those firms use US property in Cuba seized by the Castro regime. It also denies US visas to executives of corporations that benefit from such property.

Mr. Clinton originally opposed the bill, then signed it after Cuban air force planes shot down two civilian aircraft piloted by exiles from Miami in February. Last week, as the European Union and Canada prepared to retaliate, he suspended for six months the right to sue, a power the law grants him. That at least gets the issue past this year's presidential election and creates a breathing space in which some kind of compromise can be worked out.

But Tuesday Congress sent the president another bill that would allow the US to sanction foreign companies that invest in Libyan and Iranian oil and gas fields. The idea is to pressure US allies not to do business with countries that are believed to sponsor international terrorism.

US companies are already barred from doing business with Libya. The UN Security Council imposed sanctions after Libya was implicated in the 1988 terrorist bombing of Pam Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. The new bill would require the president to impose two or more of six possible sanctions on foreign companies that invest $40 million in Iranian and Libyan energy development.

The Canadians, Europeans, and Japanese have been too nonchalant in their dealings with Cuba, Libya, and Iran, but unilateral action by the US Congress is not the answer. Our friends and allies do not take kindly to the US trying to dictate their trade policy. The US should have learned its lesson in 1982, when it passed a similar law sanctioning foreign firms that invested in the Soviet gas pipeline to Western Europe. That flared into a major dispute; then-Secretary of State George Shultz spent months defusing it.

Starting a trade dispute with our top trading partners will cause the US problems far out of proportion to the harm such sanctions might do Iran or Libya. It invites retaliation that harms US businesses and jobs and detracts from Washington's many valid trade complaints.

The White House says President Clinton will sign the measure into law. Let's not go further down this road. A veto would better serve the national interest.

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