Sanctions: A Primitive Tool

On any given day, run a computer word-search on "sanctions," and miscellaneous stories will tumble out: "Nigeria asks easing of sanctions." "South Korea's president asks President Clinton to ease sanctions on North Korea." "African leaders decide to ignore some of the sanctions on Libya." "Yugoslavia denounces American sanctions over Kosovo." "Russia says it will not support sanctions against Serbia."

Sanctions are the resort of legislators frustrated at being unable to impose the superpower's will on errant nations. Sanctions are now supposed to do what gunboats once did. Congress has imposed sanctions of longer or shorter duration 104 times since World War II, and 61 times during Mr. Clinton's term so far. Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger figures that more than half of the world's population are now subject to American sanctions.

Except for South Africa, where an international embargo helped to end apartheid, sanctions have not been shown to do much good. Libya has still not turned over the suspects in the bombing of Pan American flight 103. Iraq is still not coming clean with its weapons development. Castro limps along despite the stringent Helms-Burton freeze on trade with Cuba.

On the other hand, sanctions have several times been shown to be counterproductive. Efforts to get other countries to toe the American line on Cuba have landed us in angry disputes with Canada and Europe. And Mr. Clinton has said, more candidly than wisely, that automatic sanctions put enormous pressure on the executive to "fudge an evaluation" of what is going on. Probably as counterproductive as any were the automatic sanctions that the administration was obliged to impose by law on India and Pakistan after their nuclear tests. Pakistan is less able than India to sustain the effects, and could be headed toward bankruptcy. Since the nuclear tests cannot be undone, there is now no way of lifting the sanctions without new legislation.

Republican Sen. Richard Lugar, a foreign-policy specialist, didn't get much attention the other day when he stood before a map at a news conference and said that sanctions are costing America some $15 billion a year in exports, and more than 200,000 jobs. He offered a sanctions reform bill. It would set standards for applying sanctions and require that, in each case, the impact on this country be measured. A similar bill in the House is stalled in committee.

Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton says sanctions may be too blunt an instrument. But because sanctions punishing those who do not uphold our values make a member of Congress look good to constituents, they're an instrument that congresspeople like to wield.

* Daniel Schorr is senior news analyst at National Public Radio.

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