Legislating for the world Sanctions bill: Other countries object to being told with whom they may do business.

July 26, 1996

WHEN ECONOMIC sanctions against rogue regimes have worked, which is hardly ever, the world community agreed through machinery of the United Nations to impose them. For the United States to dictate sanctions to foreign firms is at best a fantasy.

However satisfied a congressman feels in passing a bill forbidding a French firm from digging an oil well in Libya, it infuriates trading partners and invites reprisals against U.S. firms. That does not stop Congress from passing, or President Clinton from signing, a foolish measure in an election year.

Virtually everyone who matters in Washington understands the backlash to the secondary boycott of Cuba that was signed into law by President Clinton. Mexico and Canada and the European Union are preparing legal challenges under the World Trade Organization, or reprisals. President Clinton's body language in signing it while delaying implementation until after the election seems intended to convince Cuban-Floridians that he will enforce the law, and trading partners that he will not. It can only have the reverse effect.

Nonetheless, while the European Union commission was drafting a set of reprisals for this U.S. usurpation, Congress upped the ante. The House passed a bill already approved by the Senate that would compel the president to take action against firms that make new investments in Libya's or Iran's oil industries. The White House said he will sign it.

This is a carefully crafted bill, not as damaging as it might have been. There are six possible actions against a noncompliant firm and the president would need to take two. This could be limited to denying favors in the U.S. to foreign firms misbehaving elsewhere. They might not be seeking favors in the U.S.

Even so, other countries are reacting with fury. What they see is the U.S. Congress and White House trying to dictate with whom their citizens might do business. No one delegated that responsibility to the U.S.

Libya and Iran have subsidized terrorism and have kooky and repressive regimes. Still, linking the bill to the destruction of TWA Flight 800, as some congressmen did, is sheer demagogy while the president is cautioning that he does not know what downed the plane.

The time when the U.S. Congress could legislate for a weak and confused world is long past. The way to get up a meaningful sanction against a rogue regime is to persuade other major trading powers to join in, not to pretend to write their laws.

Pub Date: 7/26/96

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