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Good Move, Bad Reason

May 02, 1999

In a major departure from policy, the Clinton administration announced last week it is lifting a ban on the sales of food, medicine and medical equipment to such renegade countries as Libya, Iran and Sudan. This is a welcome change in a largely discredited approach.

Economic sanctions have become the administration's favorite weapon against countries whose policies it dislikes. By some counts, more than 60 separate sanctions have been imposed since 1992 on 35 countries, including Canada and America's best friends in Europe. Putting the dubious value of unilateral trade sanctions aside, food and medical supplies should never have been included in such measures. After all, the professed goal of trade embargoes is to punish or undermine rogue leaders, such as Moammar Kadafi, not to add to the suffering of the people.

The State Department, which announced the measure, portrayed it as a humanitarian gesture. That strains credulity. It would have us believe that the fact that farmers have been pushing for this, that prices of some grains are at their lowest in years and that U.S. farm exports have been hit hard by the Asian crisis has nothing to do with it. Even that the lifting of the ban was announced as Vice President Al Gore, the Democratic presidential front-runner, was visiting farmers in Iowa was a pure coincidence, administration officials said.

American farmers will gain hugely from the end of the ban. Grain exporters say that sales to Iran alone could reach 5 million tons a year. Agricultural exports are important for the U.S. economy, representing a $52-billion business. U.S. farmers, who are among the world's most efficient, stand a good chance of moving substantially into the new markets.

It was wrong for the administration to use the ban on the exports of food and medical supplies as an instrument of foreign policy in the first place. It is now undoing that wrong. But it is acting for the wrong reason--political expediency.

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