WASHINGTON, D.C., FEB. 24, 2001 (Zenit.org).- Should the United States continue to use extensive economic sanctions? This is a question the new Bush administration must decide on soon.

During his Senate confirmation hearings to be Secretary of State, Colin Powell declared that he would like to see the number of economic sanctions reduced. Powell said he was "astonished" by the number of countries subject to partial or total economic trading bans, the Washington Times reported Jan. 30. "There was just tab after tab in the briefing books," Powell said. "I would encourage Congress to step back for a while, count to 10, and call me" before imposing a new sanction.

The Clinton administration in its first term alone approved unilateral economic measures to punish 35 countries, from Afghanistan to Yugoslavia, according to a study financed by the National Association of Manufacturers. The 1997 study said the unilateral sanctions cost the U.S. economy between $15 billion and $19 billion a year in lost sales and contracts, figures hotly disputed by sanctions supporters.

Some members of the United Nations are also questioning the use of sanctions, the Financial Times reported Dec. 7. After approving 12 sanctions regimes in 10 years -- compared with only two (against Rhodesia in 1966 and South Africa in 1977) during the first 45 years of the United Nations´ existence -- member states are becoming wary of a policy tool that has sometimes proven harmful to populations while failing to achieve its goal.

Critics of sanctions note that comprehensive sanctions, such as those imposed on Iraq in 1990 and Haiti in 1993, have had devastating humanitarian effects and are unlikely to be imposed again. Even the so-called smart sanctions, which target "rogue" leaders and rebel groups and aim to prevent civilian casualties, are more often than not proving ineffective, compromising the credibility of the United Nations.

Opponents of sanctions received support from a recent study showing that the U.S. embargo against Cuba has had little effect. Reuters reported Feb. 17 that the study by the U.S. International Trade Commission to the House´s Ways and Means Committee showed that sanctions had a minimal overall impact on Cuba because it quickly developed a political and economic alliance with the Soviet Union.

The study affirmed that while Cuba accuses U.S. sanctions of having cost it $67 billion in the period up to 1998 this does not take into account the value of Soviet-bloc economic assistance since 1960.

Sanctions defended

Sanctions still have their defenders, however. In the Jan. 28 issue of The New York Times, Aryeh Neier, president of the Open Society Institute, sympathized with Secretary of State Powell´s desire to reduce the number of countries under sanctions (about 75 currently). But Neier insisted that it would be a mistake to abandon sanctions in situations where there are no ready substitutes.

Neier observed, in fact, that sanctions seem to be finally having an effect on the military junta in Burma. Recently the military started talks with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. This concession came after pressure from the international community, including a prohibition on new investments and a visa ban for members of the Burmese military. Neier also noted that sanctions are having a positive effect on human rights in South Africa.

Regarding Iraq, Neier pointed out that the United Nations took steps to ease the plight of Iraqi citizens by allowing the country to sell oil and use the proceeds to buy food and medicine. But the population continues to suffer, largely because Saddam Hussein has chosen not to spend money on the humanitarian needs of his people.

Conservative quarters also defend the use of sanctions. In the National Review Online on Feb. 1, contributing editor Frank J. Gaffney commented that the costs of unilateral sanctions to the U.S. economy are exaggerated. He quoted a Congressional Budget Office study of 1998 that indicates a net cost less than $1 billion annually to national income. This is due to the fact that the principal targets of sanctions have been countries with which the United States conducts relatively little trade.

Conservatives have also called for action in the case of China. For years, conservative groups, along with others active in promoting religious liberty, have repeatedly called for limitations on trade with China.

Washington Post columnist Jim Hoagland argued Feb. 18 in favor of sanctions, maintaining that the recent conviction of the Libyan agent in The Hague, Netherlands, was only possible because Moammar Gadhafi had wearied of sanctions. Hoagland admitted the need to adjust sanctions in some cases, but affirmed that they represent a useful foreign-policy tool.

Where next?

Sanctions have been popular for some time. Between 1945 and 1990 the United States initiated more than 60 cases of sanctions. By 1998, one study said, half the world´s population lived in countries under some type of U.S. sanction. Yet, at the same time, the success rate of sanctions dropped, often because other countries were unwilling to abide by the unilateral American decisions.

Opposition to sanctions can break the traditional fault lines in politics and create odd allies. Business and agricultural interests, for instance, eager to export their goods, are joined by liberal politicians and organizations, concerned with the humanitarian impact of sanctions.

One reason why sanctions have been criticized in recent years is the widespread civilian suffering in Iraq. Much of the suffering is due to Saddam´s decision to use the civilian population as a hostage in order to persuade Western opinion to lift sanctions. This demonstrates the difficulty of using such a blunt weapon as sanctions. Moreover, they have failed to pacify Saddam.

The solution, however, is not as simple as saying that sanctions should be eliminated. In cases where regimes are not open to negotiations, sanctions are often the only weapon available to pressure a government. And armed intervention as an alternative to sanctions is unlikely to be any kinder to the civilian population.

Nevertheless, the problem remains of how to avoid harming innocents while imposing sanctions. For that reason, many are now calling for a change in the ways sanctions are designed, so they can be more selective in their impact on a country´s population. Other improvements include allowing for a wider discretion in their implementation so as to permit flexibility by political leaders.

The Bush administration´s challenge now is how to reform the implementation of sanctions in the face of growing criticism by those concerned with their harmful effects.