Alienating Our Allies

By signing a $23 billion, 23-year gas deal with Iran that includes construction of a pipeline stretching from Tabriz to Ankara, Turkish Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan has illuminated a serious flaw in the Clinton administration's effort to rein in rogue states: a failure to understand the value of allies.

The recent deal potentially violates the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act signed by President Clinton, which provides for economic retaliation against foreign companies or countries investing more than $40 million a year in the sanctioned countries' petroleum sectors. Should the State Department find Turkey in violation of the act, the consequence could be a significant deterioration of US-Turkey relations.

When a nation imposes unilateral sanctions, as the US has done, it jeopardizes existing international ties. Until now, the risks have been relatively low. Opposing Britain, Canada, or France over trade policy usually results in a harmless legal dispute with the knowledge that our relationship will solidify in the face of any serious international crisis.

But Turkey poses a much different challenge: It is a crossroads for the problems of the post-cold-war world. Islamic factions threaten its secular government, its economy is sagging, and Kurds are fighting a revolution in the south. Destabilizing pressure on Turkey is enormous, and upheaval there will jeopardize a number of US interests.

In announcing the Sanctions Act, Clinton acknowledged that "Our alliances are the bedrock of American leadership." However, in the same breath he sought to excuse the blatant encroachment of allied sovereignty by indicating that the only way to direct Iran and Libya away from terrorism was through US "leadership" on economic sanctions. "I hope, and expect, that before long our allies will come around to accepting this fundamental truth," Clinton said. This hardly seems likely.

European and Latin American countries, as well as Canada, expressed outrage over Clinton's signing of the Helms-Burton Act, which opened the door for US companies to sue foreign firms conducting business in Cuba. So far, none of the United States' allies have supported the Iran-Libya measure either. The EU has promised to fight its validity in the World Trade Organization, while Malaysia says it will raise the issue at the next Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum. In short order, the US has provided the impetus for an unlikely coalition of countries as diverse as Germany, Cuba, China, and Japan.

The greatest flaw that underlies both the Helms-Burton and Iran-Libya bills is a failure to recognize that "leadership" isn't synonymous with unilateral action. For any sanctions effort to work, there must be broad multilateral support. The coalition assembled against Iraq in the Gulf war is the quintessential example. Amassing such support demonstrates diplomatic leadership, behind which allies will join a common cause. Unilateralism, however, garners neither support nor consent of other nations. Penalizing foreign companies refusing to adhere to US foreign policy is unilateralism in the extreme.

The State Department's reluctance to condemn the Turkish-Iranian deal indicates its sensitivity to Turkey's strategic importance. Ultimately, continued failure to coordinate policy with our allies poses a greater risk: Unilateralism misapplied can lead to self-imposed isolation. As last week's missile attacks against Iraq demonstrate, the US cannot simply lead and expect others to follow. Only Britain announced its full support prior to the attack, while Egypt, Russia, France, and a host of other traditional allies have opposed what is seen to be a premature abandonment of peaceful negotiation.

Rather than antagonizing its allies, the US should seek to strengthen economic and political bonds. The Clinton administration's myopic policies threaten to do the reverse. And in the eyes of the rest of the world, the US is now playing the rogue.

*Scott Worden and William J. Dobson are junior fellows at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

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