Should sanctions be eased?

Recent statements by Bush and Powell may indicate a dramatic shift in US policy.

For years, economic sanctions have been a major tool in US foreign policy.

But these days, it's not just the generally perceived "bad guys" of the world - the Iraqs, Cubas, Libyas, and North Koreas - who are feeling the sting of sanctions. In a trend that has accelerated rapidly in recent years, more than 60 countries, including relatively friendly nations such as India, Italy, Japan, and Mexico, now experience some kind of US economic restriction.

A key diplomatic issue for the new Bush administration is the extent to which this policy should be changed.

Secretary of State Colin Powell is just back from a Mideast tour where he said the US wants to ease sanctions against Iraq - focusing them on Saddam Hussein's military capability while relieving the burden on Iraqi civilians.

This important step illustrates a likely change in US sanctions policy. It also fits a pattern of recent comments by senior administration officials, and it reflects a desire for change by a broad spectrum of political and economic interests in this country - interests the Bush administration is inclined to respond to.

President Bush and Secretary Powell have both been publicly critical of economic sanctions as presently designed and enforced. Restrictions against Iraq, Mr. Bush said in his news conference with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, "are like Swiss cheese."

And Powell, speaking of sanctions at his Senate confirmation hearing, asked lawmakers to "Please stop, count to 10, and call me, and we'll talk about it before you slap on another one." It was what many senators wanted to hear.

In a recent speech before the US Chamber of Commerce, Senate majority leader Trent Lott indicated a desire to rethink US sanctions policy. "It's not so much when we put them on, it's the fact that they almost never come off," he said. "We do expect to take a serious look at how we use and abuse sanctions."

Many industry, agriculture, and trade groups (including those in the oil industry, prominently represented in this administration) would like to see a general easing of sanctions as well.

"The problem with unilateral sanctions is that they often cut off American influence and hurt the very people the US is trying to help," says William Lane, chairman of USA*ENGAGE, a broad-based coalition representing American business and agriculture. "We don't think it is an accident that the countries the United States has attempted to isolate the most - Cuba and North Korea - have changed the least over the past 40 years," he says.

The roots of the shift

The rethinking of economic sanctions as a foreign-policy tool began in the later years of the Clinton administration.

"Our sanctions around the world have grown higgeldy-piggeldy both through a lot of action in the Congress, and through decisions by the executive, because they allow you to do something about our problems without going to war," says Anthony Lake, national security adviser to former President Bill Clinton.

Some say the shifting attitude toward sanctions is simply evidence of changing foreign-policy goals. "Success is much rarer in high-stakes, political cases," says Jeffrey Schott, a senior fellow at the Institute for International Economy in Washington. "The target regime has a lot more to lose and therefore the economic uncertainty may not be sufficient to justify economic suicide."

Still, there is clear evidence that sanctions can work in convincing repressive regimes to change their ways. Supporters point to the end of apartheid in South Africa, liberalization in communist Poland, and the recent willingness of the military junta in Myanmar (the former Burma) to negotiate with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

"It would be a mistake to abandon sanctions in situations where there are no ready substitutes, as in the promotion of international human rights," Aryeh Neier, author and human rights advocate, wrote recently in The New York Times.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser to former President Jimmy Carter, agrees a review of sanctions policy is "long overdue." For example, says Dr. Brzezinski, the US should prepare for the time when Fidel Castro is gone. "I think that in case of Cuba [which has been under US economic sanctions for nearly 40 years], we ought to be prepared for a soft landing after Castro's gone, and we can do that better if sanctions create more opportunity for interaction with Cuban society."

Sanctions on Cuba will stay

With anti-Castro Cubans in Florida an important element of political support for Republican administrations, it is unlikely that 40 years of sanctions on Cuba will be dramatically changed any time soon.

But, says a State Department official, "There will be a comprehensive look at all the sanctions that are out there and why and how we should use them."

Part of this review is likely to examine the usefulness of unilateral US economic sanctions in relation to sanctions imposed by the United Nations or other multinational groups.

"I would apply unilateral sanctions very sparingly," says Lee Hamilton, director of the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington and former chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee. "They're almost never useful."

Staff writer Francine Kiefer and Justin Brown contributed to this report.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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