Despite Powell pleas, U.S. unlikely to ease sanctions

Economic penalties an alternative to war

May 28, 2001|By Jay Hancock | Jay Hancock,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The number, breadth and complexity of U.S. economic sanctions against other nations so dismayed Colin L. Powell early this year that the soon-to-be secretary of state took the first chance he had to complain about them to Congress.

"They just keep coming. I think I've seen a half a dozen new ones ... in the last couple of weeks," Powell told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at his confirmation hearing in January.

"Stop, look and listen before you impose a sanction," he implored. "Please stop. Count to 10. Call me."

Heeding Powell's cry, Congress has stopped and listened to the State Department's views on whether to renew the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act, which penalizes foreign companies investing in those nations and expires in August.

But the consultation hasn't had much apparent effect.

Congress moved Wednesday to renew the sanctions, and even Powell predicts that the effort will succeed. The expected renewal of the Iran-Libya measure, criticized by many as ineffective and counterproductive, casts doubt on Powell's larger agenda of trying to overhaul a broad array of more than 100 U.S. sanctions directed at dozens of countries.

"I'm sure Powell is genuinely committed to the idea of sanctions reform, but I think he's probably not going to have a whole lot of luck," said Kimberly Elliott, a trade analyst at the Institute for International Economics who sits on a State Department sanctions advisory committee. "These things are impossible to kill."

Economic sanctions are appealing because they enable nations to respond to foreign provocation without going to war.

Sanctions were used as long ago as the fifth century B.C. in Greece, when Pericles banned Megarian products from the Athenian market in retaliation for the abduction of three women.

Current U.S. sanctions include sweeping embargoes on Cuba, Iraq, Libya, Iran and North Korea as well as dozens of lesser measures against other states.

Three years ago, the U.S. International Trade Commission counted 29 nations subject to one or more of 142 U.S. sanctions, measures that levied penalties for behavior ranging from nuclear testing to the importation of environmentally unfriendly tuna.

Sanctions can restrict U.S. imports, exports, foreign investment, trade loans, military contacts, foreign aid or other commerce. Some sanctions are imposed by the president; many are mandated by Congress. They can be triggered by a nation's drug policies; development of nuclear, chemical or biological weapons; coups; human rights practices; promotion of terrorism; or other acts.

A 1998 law withholds portions of U.S. foreign assistance from nations whose diplomats are cited as parking scofflaws in Washington.

Recent political developments had produced what opponents thought was their best chance in years to trim Washington's sanctions list, especially the unilateral penalties that are particularly resented by big business and U.S. allies in Europe and Asia.

While U.S. corporations seeking to expand overseas markets have continued to lobby against sanctions, tight oil supplies and high gasoline prices have given sanctions opponents new reasons to argue for reopening Iran and Libya as U.S. sources of crude. So, too, have recent signs of political moderation in Libya and Iran.

The Bush administration has sanctions opponents in many senior positions.

As chief executive of Halliburton Co., a supplier of oil services worldwide, Dick Cheney called Washington "sanctions happy" in 1998 and argued for lifting the restrictions against Iran. A recent review by an energy task force headed by Vice President Cheney says policymakers should weigh the impact of sanctions on U.S. energy supplies.

President Bush has extensive ties to the oil industry, which has long chafed at sanctions. Powell seems to object to sanctions for bureaucratic reasons as much as anything, saying that implementation of the measures wastes huge amounts of U.S. officials' time.

"Almost every day, I'm either certifying, sanctioning or waiving somebody or something over something," Powell said.

The State Department will soon launch an ambitious, governmentwide review of sanctions with an eye toward streamlining the scores of measures. According to department officials, the review will be led by Richard Haass, Powell's policy planning director and another sanctions skeptic.

"Unilateral sanctions are rarely effective," Haass wrote in the 1998 book "Economic Sanctions and American Diplomacy."

"In a global economy, unilateral sanctions tend to impose greater costs on American firms than on the target," Haass wrote.

Haass favors multilateral sanctions and says that even those should be weighed with the gravity with which a nation considers going to war.

Critics say sanctions have gotten out of control, often don't work, anger U.S. allies, damage the U.S. economy and frequently hurt the people in targeted nations rather than the government.

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