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U.S.: Administration Rethinking Sanctions As Policy Tool

  • Charles Recknagel

The new U.S. administration of George W. Bush says it wants to be more selective about using trade bans on other countries. The mood in Washington is for fewer but smarter sanctions which directly target offending regimes. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel speaks with Meghan O'Sullivan of the Brookings Institution, who recently co-authored a book on rethinking sanction strategies with the U.S. State Department's new head of policy planning, Richard Haass. The first part of a two-part interview looks at why Washington is rethinking sanctions policy and what it has learned from its experiences with Serbia, Iraq, and Iran.

Prague, 20 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- When Secretary of State Colin Powell appeared for confirmation hearings in the U.S. Senate last month, he offered this advice to lawmakers who ask Washington to slap sanctions on other governments.

Powell said he wanted members of Congress to count to 10 before they pass sanctions, especially in response to a particular constituent interest.

His message was that while sanctions are easy to legislate, they are hard to enforce and have a mixed record of success in forcing foreign states to change offensive behaviors. And sanctions are hard to reverse because they can only be removed by a repeal of the legislation which put them in place.

Powell's statements were in line with a new trend in thinking about sanctions, which is likely to see Washington become more sparing about using trade bans as a foreign policy tool than it was during the past decade.

Some of that new thinking is presented in a recent book by Meghan O'Sullivan, a policy expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington, and Richard Haass, recently appointed as head of policy planning at the U.S. State Department.

The book, titled "Honey and Vinegar: Incentives, Sanctions and Foreign Policy," reviews the record of U.S. sanctions and outlines ways to make them a better foreign policy tool for the future.

O'Sullivan tells RFE/RL that Washington's use of sanctions mushroomed in the 1990s following the end of the Cold War.

"After the Cold War, a lot of interest groups whose concerns had really been subjugated to Cold War politics before that time, their concerns had increased salience. And they were better able to petition their members of Congress and better able to advocate the use of sanctions for their own particular foreign policy goals."

But she says that frequent use of sanctions has created a reaction from other segments of U.S. society, which now see many kinds of sanctions as harmful to their interests. O'Sullivan says these groups include the business, human rights, and foreign policy communities.

"There are three important strands. One of them is American businesses protesting sanctions basically on their cost or the commercial penalties the U.S. pays for imposing sanctions. There is also a human rights or religious organizations component that protests sanctions on grounds that they have unintended humanitarian consequences."

She continues:

"Then there is a group that could be loosely called internationalists, diplomats and foreign policy practitioners who say that [with] sanctions, really, often the costs outweigh their benefits because they impose diplomatic costs by causing tensions with U.S. allies."

These groups now call for re-examining the record of sanctions and for looking for ways to use them sparingly and with greater efficiency.

O'Sullivan says three of the major applications of U.S. sanctions -- against Iran, Iraq, and Serbia -- have offered valuable lessons as to when and how sanctions are most effective.

She says the sanctions levied on Belgrade to punish it for fanning the former Yugoslavia's ethnic conflicts are generally considered to have successfully contributed to ousting Slobodan Milosevic.

"The lessons that can be learned from the Serbian case are that sanctions work when they are multilateral, sanctions work when they are coupled with other policy tools, like incentives to democratic oppositions. Sanctions also work in societies where, even where they are not democratic societies, there are regimes which are susceptible to political pressures."

O'Sullivan says sanctions on Iraq have shown that inflicting economic pain alone may not be enough to cause a regime to change its behavior. And it has shown that if economic pressures are too broad in focus, they create a humanitarian crisis that will steadily erode international support for the sanctions regime.

At the same time, if sanctions are drawn out -- those on Iraq have been in place since 1990 -- neighboring states become increasingly impatient to restore former commercial ties and creditor states increasingly impatient to collect outstanding debts.

In the case of Iran, Washington has unilaterally sought to punish Tehran as a state-sponsor of terrorism by forbidding U.S. companies from buying or selling Iranian oil and threatening sanctions against foreign companies investing in Iran's energy sector.

But in recent years, Washington has waived enforcing the sanctions against European and other companies that have gone ahead with such investments. The reason has been that the U.S. has not wanted to create tensions in its relations with its key allies. That has caused many to doubt the usefulness of unilateral sanctions as a future policy tool.

O'Sullivan says such lessons make it likely that sanctions will play less of a role in the foreign policy of the Bush administration than they have in past years.

"Sanctions will play less of a dominant role in the foreign policy of the Bush administration. Already there has been a bit of a backlash against using sanctions as a first tool of resort and I think that will continue. And it is not that sanctions will become the last tool of resort. But it should be one of several options that are considered."

Meanwhile, the Bush administration now faces the immediate challenge of re-energizing the sanctions on Iraq.

(The second part of this two-part interview appears tomorrow and looks at what Washington's rethinking of its sanctions policy may mean for how it deals with Baghdad.)

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