Which comes first in American foreign policy-the economic sanction or the cruise missile? It's getting hard to tell.
Various levels of government have come to impose sanctions so readily that Congress might limit the tactic (see Watching Government, p. 37). In a telling coincidence, bills to force officials into thinking before enacting sanctions emerged in both houses while American aerial weapons were pounding Yugoslavia under auspices of the United Nations.
Limits welcomeFor the U.S. oil and gas industry, limits on sanctions would be welcome indeed. Sanctions have denied U.S. operators and service companies many opportunities. Benefits to U.S. foreign policy interests have been questionable.
The issue received a new twist with Libya's surrender on Apr. 5 of two intelligence agents suspected in the bombing of an airliner over Lockerbie, Scotland, that killed 259 passengers and 11 people on the ground. Sanction fans will claim vindication in Tripoli's submission to an unusual trial of the suspects by a Scottish court bivouacked in the Netherlands. But it's not that simple. The bombing occurred in December 1988. Ten years is a long time to wait for a shot at justice. Ten years is a long time for Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi to have scorned international decency.
As soon as the bombing suspects arrived in Holland, the U.N. began proceedings to suspend economic sanctions. It imposed limits on travel, technology transfer, and financial activity in 1992 and 1993 after Libya came to be thought responsible for the Lockerbie atrocity and the 1989 bombing of an airliner in France that claimed 171 lives. Unraveling of the U.N. sanctions won't help U.S. companies, though.
Their country has its own sanctions against Libya. Former President Ronald Reagan imposed them in January 1986 in response to terrorist attacks against Americans in Europe. Two months later he launched air strikes against strategic targets in Libya. Congress added to the 1986 measures with the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act of 1996.
Even if the U.N. sanctions disappear, the U.S. measures probably will not. The State Department says Qadhafi's government still supports a number of Palestinian terrorist groups, including the Abu Nidal Organization, the leader of which lives in Libya. Sanctions haven't stopped Qadhafi's support for terrorism.
In fact, where effectiveness is concerned, sanctions have much in common with the aerial harassment of Yugoslavian President Slobodan Milosevic. The military action, taken in response to Serb barbarity against Albanians in Kosovo, started with solemn promises from the U.N. and U.S. not to deploy ground troops. Given that generous discount to his probable losses, Milosevic accelerated his purge of Kosovo.
Sanctions and politically sanitized air attacks both represent measured punches. They aim to make despots behave nicely by punishing them without causing too much of what the after-action reports call collateral damage. It seldom works. Punches are too hard to measure. Measured punishment just makes despots nastier.
Solo superpowerIn defense of the U.S. government, there are no clear rules of engagement for a solo superpower called to enforce order in a world armed with nuclear weapons. But the standard American response to foreign villainy is beginning to look like aggressive resort to the path of least resistance in domestic politics. In too many campaigns with no end in sight, the U.S. either blocks business with quarrelsome countries, bombs them from a safe distance in overly measured ways, or-as in Iraq-both. It's creating too many places off-limits to business and achieving too little in foreign affairs.
The U.S. must pick its fights better than it has done lately. It needs to enter only the scraps it intends to win and commit itself to swift victory. That's the only way to enforce order and the best way to limit casualties. The world needs a benign superpower, not a superscold.
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