Powell vs. Bush

Posted: Feb 03, 2001 12:00 AM
The Lockerbie decision reminded everybody that Libya is one of what we used to call "rogue states," a designation gone out of fashion. Diplomacy doesn't like provocative categories, inasmuch as it is diplomacy's business to weave in and out of such problems as are presented to the world by rogue states. For instance, any rogue state that acquires a nuclear bomb is promoted to world-class respect.

So President Bush has called for reaffirming the sanctions against Libya. These sanctions have been in place for 15 years. Our opposition to Libyan terrorism was nicely punctuated in 1986 by President Reagan, who sent an Air Force detachment to strike at Tripoli, downheartedly finding Qaddafi away from the house when the bombs homed in on his bedside.

But this call by President Bush, while not exactly colliding with a policy initiative of his secretary of state, calls into question the criteria by which we have been guided over the years in the matter of sanctions. There are nearly 200 nations in the world, and we have, since World War I, imposed sanctions on 125 of them. Some of these sanctions were paramilitary, as e.g., those against Hitler's Germany and Tojo's Japan. But most have been graduated acts of diplomacy.

What we heard from Secretary Powell, testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was that he favored not exactly phasing out sanctions, but "get(ting) rid of most of (them)." He left the senators with a feeling that he considers sanctions on the whole ineffective, impetuous and arrogant. And of course it is true that the imposition of sanctions is a way to let off national steam.

An outfit called USA Engage, which wants to increase trade everywhere, particularly in those areas in which we are inhibited from doing so by economic sanctions, is the target of an essay by Frank J. Gaffney Jr., president of the Center for Security Policy. USA Engage "would effectively eliminate the United States' ability to impose economic sanctions on a unilateral basis."

The instrument of reform is some version or other of Sen. Richard Lugar's 1998 Enhancement of Trade, Security and Human Rights Through Sanctions Reform Act. The act would extend the presidential waiver authority, among other things. The objective, Mr. Gaffney persuasively speculates, is to end by yielding to the United Nations the authority to impose sanctions. Currently we impose sanctions on 75 countries, the U.N. on fewer than a dozen.

Gen. Powell hasn't disclosed which sanctions he'd seek to mitigate or to end. The ghostly presence in that room is, of course, Cuba. But that boycott is so freighted with political dynamite, Gen. Powell may, even though he is a decorated soldier of courage, flinch from any direct recommendation that the Cold War attitude toward Cuba should be revised as anachronistic. What will never be anachronized, or should never be, is the odium felt for Cuba's despotic and sadistic leader. But the whole idea of reform is to detach commerce from diplomatic policy. Our tradition has been to recognize de jure leaders, and often de facto leaders.

No doubt Gen. Powell is influenced by the marginalizaton of economic sanctions, which is a fruit of globalization. Multilateral sanctions can work, as we saw in the case of South Africa. But the situation there was unique. We had a racist government that, after some years, people stampeded to oppose, including students marching to enjoin divestitures by college trustees.

What doesn't much work is unilateral sanctions, because somebody else is going to augment its trade to make up for the trade lost by the country imposing the sanctions. The idea, 10 years ago, was to bring Saddam Hussein to his knees by sanctions imposed by all the powers that participated in the Gulf War. But only the United States continues officially committed to sanctions, and we have got the irony of a theoretically abject Saddam Hussein who finds enough money to bestow $10,000 on the family of every Palestinian casualty, and to talk about raising the price of oil by 50 cents a barrel.

Mr. Gaffney is correct that in one respect the U.S. is unique, and that is the leverage we have in "carefully crafted financial sanctions -- including limiting access of offending foreign government-controlled entities to the U.S. debt and equities markets." Any upwardly mobile country serious about its rate of economic development hungers for cooperation by American credit institutions. But such as Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong Il can tinker with their nuclear plants and stir their pots of biological poisons without leaning on the Chase Bank.

So we will see how President Bush homes in on the question, confident that he will not preside over American disarmament, sanctions being a dimension of national power.