US backing away from sanctions

Amid criticism, US eases economic penalties in several key cases. But experts say track record includes successes.

In a gradual shift of US policy, the Clinton administration has been easing sanctions against some of its highest-profile adversaries.

Over the past 18 months North Korea, Cuba, Iran, Libya and Yugoslavia have all been beneficiaries of what one administration official called a "more flexible" policy regarding sanctions.

Although some of the changes are small - Iran, for example, can now export pistachios, rugs, and caviar to the US - they have the cumulative effect of redefining how the United States uses one of its most potent tools for influencing the behavior of foreign governments.

"There's been a greater appreciation that sanctions affect not only government officials but they affect civilian women and children, as we've seen in Iraq," says a senior State Department official.

US officials say they are working to make sanctions more flexible, so they can be quickly applied and lifted as the international climate changes. They also hope to make greater use multilateral sanctions - which have proved more effective than unilateral measures.

While the shift may be partially to deflect a wide array of criticism, officials say it is driven by each specific case, as the US learns to tame an admittedly blunt weapon.

This week, the US rewarded North Korea for agreeing to stop testing missiles - by lifting trade restrictions and opening air and sea routes. On Wednesday, several hundred cases of Coca-Cola reportedly were trucked from China into North Korea.

"The US has accumulated a tremendous inventory of sanctions against a great number of countries," says Gary Hufbauer, a sanctions expert at the Institute for International Economics in Washington. "Now they're using them as carrots for good behavior - or lifting them as a means to alleviate hardships on ordinary people." But, he adds, that doesn't mean the US is shying away from the use of sanctions. New measures are still being applied, or considered, to limit the flow of weapons and diamonds to and from Africa, for example.

With regard to Cuba, the US has tried to promote more person-to-person contact and Congress may soon agree to drop embargoes on food and medicine, as it has done with Iran and Sudan. If the trade measures are enacted, they would represent one of the most substantial easings of sanctions against Cuba in 40 years.

The US has also loosened its grip on Yugoslavia in recent months, falling in line with the less austere approach favored by the European Union countries. After initial resistance, Washington has supported programs to give heating oil to cities run by the political opposition, and has agreed to open Yugoslavia up to international flights.

In Libya, where leader Muammar Qaddafi recently turned over the suspects in the 1988 midair bombing of a Pan Am flight over Lockerbie, Scotland, the US has made subtle overtures, including allowing agricultural shipments and sending a diplomatic mission to Tripoli earlier this year for the first time in almost two decades.

Yet, despite the change that appears to be under way, the record on economic sanctions remains mixed, with some measures working and others failing.

For one, the term "sanctions" is difficult to define. Jesse Helms, the Republican chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, limits the term to seven extreme cases. The National Association of Manufacturers says US sanctions touch over 100 countries.

Clearly sanctions fail some instances - such as when they are used to try to depose of foreign leaders. Saddam Hussein of Iraq, for example, is still in power, as are Slobodan Milosevic of Yugoslavia, Fidel Castro of Cuba, North Korean President Kim Jong Il, and Libya's Qaddafi.

"There's been a lot of collateral damage in the last couple years, and that's been a big concern," says one US official. "When [sanctions] are too blunt, they can be like killing a housefly with a sledgehammer."

The case of Iraq, in particular, has come under criticism - from both the United Nations and some of America's closest European allies. While US officials say a decade of sanctions has contained Saddam and prevented him from deploying more weapons of mass destruction, critics say US policy has led to little more than civilian suffering - including malnourishment and an high infant mortality.

"One of the problems of evaluating sanctions in Iraq is that we don't know what would have happened if we had left Iraq alone," says Jon Alterman of the US Institute of Peace in Washington.

According to Mr. Hufbauer, sanctions are more likely to work if the goals are reasonable and universally supported. In Guatemala, Paraguay, and Ecuador, he says, sanctions or the threat of sanctions has helped discourage military coups.

"The lesson is that oftentimes one needs to reduce the expectations of what can be achieved with sanctions," he says.

The proper use of sanctions is also becoming an increasing concern of Congress. Lawmakers have criticized the president's decisions and tried to limit his ability to act unilaterally. Even leaders who traditionally favored strong sanctions, particularly against Cuba, have expressed concern about unilateral trade measures and the adverse effect they can have on US farmers.

One measure pending in Congress would require congressional approval within 60 days for any sanction.

Administration officials argue that the president needs great flexibility and the ability to act fast when it comes to sanctions.

"Our concern is that [Congress not] put the president in a straightjacket and prevent him from acting," says the senior State Department official.

One pending measure would require an OK by Congress for any sanction within 60 days.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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