In the past year, a handful of Washington business lobbyists have waged a blistering campaign to persuade the world that Congress has been engaged in a spasm of sanctions proliferation.

Reliance on unilateral sanctions, these lobbyists warn us, is a disturbing new epidemic. Their campaign has sparked dozens of news articles and editorials decrying the "sanctions frenzy" and castigating Congress' "voracious appetite" for sanctions. Normally responsible journalists parrot statistics—conveniently furnished by these business lobbyists—alleging that in the last few years the United States has placed anywhere from one-half to two-thirds of the world's population under the yoke of unilateral economic sanctions. The New York Times clamors that "more than 60 laws or executive orders authorizing sanctions . . . have been enacted in the last five years." Even President Clinton jumped on the antisanctions bandwagon, announcing in 1998 that the United States has gone "sanctions happy."

This is sheer nonsense. The statistics peddled by these lobbyists are grossly inflated and intentionally misleading. Half of the world is not living under American sanctions—nowhere near it. There is no epidemic. Congress has been cautious and circumspect, passing just a handful of carefully targeted sanctions laws. And unilateral economic sanctions are by no means new: they have been vital weapons in America's foreign policy arsenal for more than 200 years. I have been and continue to be a friend of American business. But the distortions spread by this small cabal of lobbyists in the name of American business are inexcusable. The time has come for a reality check.


The statistic has become conventional wisdom: in just four years the United States has imposed sanctions 61 times, burdening 2.3 billion people (42 percent of the world). That would be pretty awful, save for one thing—it is not true. These figures have been circulated by the antisanctions business group USA Engage, based on a study by the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM). They are a fabrication. At my request, the Congressional Research Service (CRS) evaluated the NAM claim that from 1993 through 1996, "61 U.S. laws and executive actions were enacted authorizing unilateral sanctions for foreign policy purposes." CRS reported that it "could not defensibly" justify the number. "We find the calculation used in . . . the NAM study to be flawed, even if the specific [sanctions] were fairly characterized, which is not always the case," CRS concluded.

How did NAM come up with 61 sanctions? The study alleges that 20 laws were passed by Congress and 41 were imposed by presidential action. This is a gross distortion. Nearly three-quarters of the congressional measures were not sanctions at all but conditions, limitations, or restrictions on U.S. foreign aid. One measure placed conditions on assistance to the Palestine Liberation Organization. Another barred aid for military or police training to Haitians involved in drug trafficking or human rights abuses. One "sanction" blocked assistance to countries knowingly harboring fugitives wanted by the international war crimes tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. Still another prohibited Defense Department aid to countries supporting terrorists. Are these the measures that NAM and USA Engage want Congress to curtail? Let's hope not.

But what about those 41 "sanctions" imposed by the executive branch? Five are not unilateral, as NAM charges, but rather represent U.S. compliance with U.N. Security Council sanctions—multilateral, by definition. In seven cases, the NAM study counts the same sanction repeatedly, identifying it each time as a separate sanction. For example, the measure declaring Sudan a terrorist state is counted five different times. NAM lists two cases when no sanction was ever imposed, including a November 1994 executive order that even NAM concedes in fine print "did not impose any specific new sanctions on any countries." Eight cases represent mere restrictions on U.S. foreign aid. Five are limited bans affecting only military exports to Zaire, Nigeria, Sudan, Haiti, and Angola. Thirteen affect only a specific foreign company or person—not an entire country, not an entire industry, but one specific entity—for example, banning imports from the Chinese Qinghai Hide and Garment Factory for its use of prison slave labor or seizing the assets of individual Colombian drug traffickers.

These actions are obviously not what most people think of as "sanctions." They think instead of broad trade bans affecting whole countries, entire industries, vast populations, or access to large markets—not conditioning U.S. foreign aid, blocking imports from a single prison factory in China, seizing the assets of drug barons, or halting the sale of lethal weapons to terrorist states.

The claim that 42 percent of the world's population has been affected is also bogus. The study lists the entire population of the former Zaire (now the Congo) as being under U.S. sanction because the United States barred sales of defense items to the government. The same goes for China, Nigeria, Mauritania, and Pakistan, where CRS notes that such highly targeted actions "put the entire populations of these countries into NAM's calculation, even though most people . . . are not likely to experience significant impact from or awareness of [the] imposition." U.S. access to those countries' commercial goods-and-services markets remains unaffected.

What is the reality? Between 1993 and 1996, Congress passed and the president signed a grand total of five new sanctions laws: the Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Act of 1994, the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act of 1996, the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act of 1996, and the Free Burma Act of 1996. During the same period, the president imposed just four new sanctions: declaring Sudan a terrorist state; banning imports of munitions and ammunition from China; tightening travel-related restrictions, cash remittance levels, and the sending of gift parcels to Cuba (restrictions that have since been lifted); and imposing a ban on new contractual agreements or investment in Iran. Nine new sanctions. That is it. The allegation of a sanctions epidemic is demonstrably false—a myth spread with the intention of misleading Congress, the American public, and the American business community.


Even more telling is what the business lobbyists leave out of their inflated inventory of sanctions. As they rail against "unilateral economic sanctions for foreign policy purposes" (NAM's phrase), they conveniently omit discussing unilateral economic sanctions for trade purposes. Retaliatory trade sanctions are not mentioned by NAM and are not covered by the proposed Sanctions Reform Act—a stunning admission of the efficacy of sanctions. After all, if unilateral sanctions did not work, why on earth would business want to protect the U.S. ability to impose them in trade disputes? The ability to threaten and impose unilateral economic sanctions is a vital tool of U.S. trade policy, just as it is in U.S. foreign policy.

What these lobbyists really dislike is not the idea of sanctions themselves but the reason some sanctions are imposed. They tacitly admit that sanctions work but insist that sanctions are good only if they defend business interests, not national interests. According to the lobbyists, the United States should be hamstrung when a government proliferates weapons of mass destruction, commits genocide, tortures its people, or supports terrorists. But if that same government floods the American market with cheap television sets, America should throw the book at it. But, of course, the business lobbyists cannot say that, so they attempt to confuse the issue with cooked-up data and claims of an epidemic. They establish groups with clever monikers like "USA Engage," whose very name implies that those who disagree with them are isolationists. But what they really stand for is not engagement but mercantilism— an amoral foreign policy.


Sanctions have always been an American foreign policy weapon. Economic sanctions were imposed by the American colonies against Britain in response to the Stamp and Townsend Acts, in both cases forcing their repeal. Jefferson and Madison both passionately advocated economic sanctions, believing not only that they were legitimate but that they should be America's primary diplomatic tools. In an 1805 letter to Jefferson, Madison argued, "The efficacy of an embargo . . . cannot be denied. Indeed, if a commercial weapon can be properly crafted for the Executive hand, it is more and more apparent to me that it can force nations . . . to respect our rights." Jefferson, for his part, contended that in foreign affairs "three alternatives alone are to be chosen from. 1. Embargo. 2. War. 3. Submission and tribute."

Jefferson is right. There are, indeed, three tools in foreign policy: diplomacy, sanctions, and war. Take away sanctions and how can the United States deal with terrorists, proliferators, and genocidal dictators? Our options would be empty talk or sending in the marines. Without sanctions, the United States would be virtually powerless to influence events absent war. Sanctions may not be perfect and they are not always the answer, but they are often the only weapon.

Unilateral sanctions, in fact, are the linchpin of our nonproliferation policy. According to a recently declassified analysis by the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, "the history of U.S.-China relations shows that China has made specific nonproliferation commitments only under the threat or imposition of sanctions." Short of war, sanctions are the main leverage the United States has over China.

They have also played a crucial role in trade disputes. The threat of unilateral sanctions on China over intellectual property rights and unfair trade barriers has forced China several times to yield. In November 1991, the U.S. trade representative threatened $1.5 billion in trade sanctions if an intellectual property rights agreement was not reached by January 1992. Not surprisingly, such an agreement was struck on January 16, 1992. No wonder business lobbyists are so keen to retain unilateral sanctions in the trade arsenal—even as they campaign to remove them from our nation's foreign policy.

U.S. sanctions helped bring down the Soviet Union. They played a pivotal role in forcing communist Poland to release political prisoners and legalize Solidarity—sparking the collapse of communism. Our targeted Nigerian sanctions are beginning to bear fruit as the military government wearies of its pariah status. In Guatemala, the decision to freeze $47 million in U.S. aid (one of the "sanctions" that business is lobbying to curtail) and the mere threat of lost trade convinced business, labor, and military leaders to roll back President Jorge Serrano Elas' May 1993 coup. Swiss banks' recent decision to pay $1.25 billion in reparations to Holocaust survivors was a direct result of threatened sanctions, as admitted by the Union Bank of Switzerland.

Critics respond that sanctions have failed to bring down regimes in Iraq, Iran, Syria, Sudan, Libya, and Cuba. Perhaps—but they have effectively contained the Saddam Husseins, Mu'ammar al-Qadhafis, and Hafiz al-Asads of the world. Without sanctions, Saddam would now be threatening the world with VX missiles, Qadhafi would be blowing up U.S. passenger planes, and Asad would be planning terrorist operations against U.S. citizens. If this policy represents failure, it beats capitulation any day. As for Cuba, until 1991 the U.S. embargo was offset by $5 billion to $7 billion in Soviet subsidies. Only without them has the embargo begun to take a toll on Castro's regime. The moment the embargo kicked in, Castro's efforts to finance Marxist insurgencies stopped, allowing the nearly complete democratic transformation of the western hemisphere. Castro's regime is teetering; unless America gives up its leverage by unconditionally lifting the embargo, his successors will be anxious to exchange normalized relations with the United States for a democratic transition in Cuba.


When sanctions do not work, it is often because the target government doubts our resolve to keep them imposed. And with good reason: the Clinton administration views sanctions as domestic public relations tools rather than as foreign policy weapons. For example, President Clinton signed the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act live on CNN. But once the camera lights dimmed and the time came to implement it, he lost his nerve. This sent the message to Iran and other rogue states that the administration talks tough but caves in under pressure. It is the same with Cuba. After the Castro regime murdered four innocent people, including three Americans, by shooting down two civilian planes flying over international waters, Clinton made a bold speech for the cameras and signed the Helms-Burton law. Since then, he has done everything in his power to avoid enforcing it. Clinton has also gone to extraordinary lengths to avoid imposing sanctions on China for its missile proliferation, despite incontrovertible evidence from American intelligence that sanctionable activities have taken place.

Congress has given the president great flexibility in most U.S. sanctions laws. National-interest waivers let the White House temporarily or permanently suspend prescribed sanctions. Even so, when the administration feels Congress has set the bar too high for these waivers, it can get around it by, as President Clinton recently said, "fudg[ing] an evaluation of the facts." If anything, Congress has already given the president too much flexibility.


Ironically, those who criticize sanctions as a one-size-fits-all foreign policy propose a worse solution—the Sanctions Reform Act. This cookie-cutter legislation is no solution at all. Instead of providing greater flexibility on sanctions policy—the clarion call of the reform crowd—this law does the exact opposite by tying the hands of both Congress and the president.

The bill prohibits the president from implementing any sanctions for a mandatory 45-day "cooling-off" period. That may sound reasonable, but in practice placing a six-week shackle on all U.S. sanctions in every situation and circumstance is dangerous folly. Ponder one example: after Libyan terrorists blew up Pan Am flight 103, the United Nations spent months debating appropriate sanctions. Meanwhile, Libya divested itself of all its reachable assets, thereby avoiding the sanctions' impact. The Sanctions Reform Act would essentially afford other terrorist states the same courtesy. While the United States "cools off" for six weeks, terrorists, proliferators, and dictators will take evasive measures—quietly divesting assets, concealing evidence, and finding safe haven for fugitives.

The Sanctions Reform Act would also impose a mandatory two-year "sunset" on all new U.S. sanctions. Another bad idea. A two-year sunset writes "sanctions fatigue" into law, sending the target state a clear message: hunker down and wait out the storm since U.S. resolve will collapse on a fixed date. The bill also mandates the "sanctity of contracts." Again, this sounds reasonable, but it is not. What happens if a U.S. company contracts to sell militarily sensitive technology to a country that suddenly tests a nuclear bomb (India, Pakistan), invades a neighbor (Iraq), engages in genocide (Serbia), or commits an act of terrorism (Iran, Libya)? The Sanctions Reform Act would prevent the United States from breaching the contract by stopping those militarily sensitive sales.

None of this means that the United States should never protect existing business contracts with sanctioned states. In most cases, it does just that. The Clinton administration's recent executive order imposing new sanctions on Iran bars only "new investments and contracts." The Helms-Burton law affects only those investments made in stolen U.S. properties in Cuba after the date of its enactment. But Congress and the White House should decide these matters case by case and not be tied down by a mandatory provision that could have unintended consequences.

Congress already has a system for considering U.S. economic sanctions. It is called congressional debate. Each sanctions law is considered carefully, every provision is debated openly, and varying levels of flexibility are written into the law. Business gets a chance to weigh in, as do other constituencies. In the end, the president can veto any law. And Congress can always go back and amend sanctions if necessary—as it just did with India and Pakistan. The system the Founders established to decide such matters works just fine. It does not need "reform" inspired by a "sanctions epidemic" fabricated in some Washington lobbying firm's offices.


Why have some American companies invested so much in fighting sanctions? In Europe, business and government opposition to sanctions is understandable. Slumping welfare-state economies and double-digit unemployment drive Europeans to employ increasingly trade-obsessed foreign policies. But American business has no such excuse. Thanks to the vigilance of congressional Republicans, they have not been saddled with high taxes and regulations. The U.S. economy is booming, and unemployment is at an all-time low.

The lobbyists' cry that sanctions cost the United States vital access to large markets is a sham. The cost of U.S. sanctions is minuscule. According to Jan Paul Acton of the Congressional Budget Office, "to date, the cost of existing sanctions to the overall economy has been quite modest. CBO's review of research indicates that the net cost may be less than $1 billion annually. That compares with $6.6 trillion of total national income in 1997." The United States gave away roughly $13 billion in foreign aid during 1997. Besides, cutting foreign aid to punish misbehavior actually saves taxpayers' money. Even if we use the business lobbyists' standard tactic of applying costs to entire populations, the price tag for U.S. economic sanctions comes to a whopping $3.77 per American—about the cost of a Big Mac and fries.

That is a small price to pay for a moral foreign policy—and a price most Americans are willing to bear. A 1998 Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll taken on the eve of the president's visit to China showed that less than one-third of Americans agreed that "We should maintain good trade relations with China, despite disagreements we might have with its human rights policies." Fully two-thirds of Americans agreed that "we should demand that China improve its human rights policies if China wants to continue to enjoy its current trade status with the United States."

This may shock the business lobbyists. It should not. Americans do not need to sell their souls or their national security to create jobs and economic prosperity. The lobbyists behind this antisanctions crusade are saying, "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em." America cannot stop rogue states from acquiring weapons of mass destruction, they say, so why cede markets for sensitive technology to our European competitors? The United States cannot stop dictators from torturing people, so why not close our eyes and trade with them as if nothing is happening? That is not the American way. Americans do not need to create jobs by selling thumbscrews to the world's tyrants.

U.S. policies should isolate terrorist regimes like Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Cuba. U.S. aid should not go to countries that commit genocide, harbor war criminals, support terrorism, or export illegal drugs that poison American children. Lethal weapons should not be sold to violent regimes in Nigeria and Sudan; assets of drug traffickers should be seized; imports from Chinese companies that use prison slave labor should be banned; and government procurement contracts should not be given to foreign companies that sell dangerous technologies to terrorist states. There should be sanctions on companies and governments that proliferate nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons and countries that murder women and children and pile them into mass graves. America should not hesitate for one second to place a cost on these reprehensible acts and to restrain those few American companies who would actually conduct business with the perpetrators of such heinous crimes.

With their antisanctions crusade, these lobbyists are fighting for business as usual with thugs, tyrants, and terrorists. They do not represent the views of the American people or most American businesses. They should be ashamed.

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  • Senator Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) is Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
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