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Cozying Up to World's Libyas

May 30, 1999|Mike Clough | Mike Clough is a research associate at the Institute of International Studies at UC Berkeley

BERKELEY, CALIF. — The Clinton administration seems to be moving in two directions simultaneously as it struggles to deal with rogue states. It is escalating military pressure on Baghdad and Belgrade, but easing sanctions on Tripoli, Tehran, Khartoum and Havana. It's even exploring possibilities of rapprochement with Pyongyang. By creating a possible alternative to traditional diplomatic, economic and military options, last week's announcement that a U.N. war-crimes tribunal will seek to prosecute Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic could complicate the picture even more.

Unless President Bill Clinton finds a way to rationalize this mix of contradictory actions, his foreign policy is likely to become more vulnerable to shifting domestic politics and less credible in the eyes of U.S. adversaries and allies abroad. The alternative is to develop policies that rely on measures exploiting the growing power of civil society, while strengthening international institutions.

In the fall of 1993, the administration first targeted states that it considered to be outside of "the circle of democracy and free markets" as part of its now largely forgotten strategy of "democratic enlargement." Six years later, despite the concerted use of diplomatic pressure, economic sanctions and, in some cases, military force, the United States has failed to substantially change the character or behavior of regimes in Iran, Libya, Sudan, Myanmar, Cuba, North Korea and, most especially, Iraq and Yugoslavia. As a result, the administration appears to be changing course, except in the cases of Iraq and Yugoslavia.

The most significant indication of an overall policy shift came late last month, when Clinton announced that the United States was lifting sanctions on commercial sales of agricultural goods and medical supplies to Iran, Libya and Sudan. The decision was described as part of a new commitment to the principle that food should not be used as a tool of foreign policy. But it is also consistent with a number of other administration actions to ease conflicts with rogue regimes.

Last year, the administration relaxed restrictions on exchanges with Cuba, making possible a series of highly publicized games this spring between the Cuban national baseball team and the Baltimore Orioles. Many observers interpreted the move as setting the stage for an attempt to normalize U.S.-Cuba relations.

Earlier this year, Washington gave South Africa and Saudi Arabia a green light to negotiate a compromise with Libya on handing over two suspects in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, which cleared the way for the lifting of U.N. sanctions against Tripoli. In April, Clinton seemed to send a conciliatory signal to Tehran when he noted that, "Iran, because of its enormous geopolitical importance over time, has been the subject of quite a lot of abuse from various Western nations." Also in May, the administration may have implicitly acknowledged that it made a mistake in bombing a pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum when, in refusing to answer a lawsuit, it released the frozen assets of the factory's owner. After the terrorist attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania last year, the factory was targeted as a production site for biological weapons. And last week, Clinton sent former Secretary of Defense William Perry to North Korea reportedly with a mandate to explore possibilities of a deal in which Pyongyang would abandon its suspected nuclear-arms and missiles-development programs in exchange for security guarantees, an end to the U.S. trade embargo and the opening of diplomatic ties with Washington and Tokyo.

The U.S. overtures to rogue regimes flows from a mix of international and domestic pressures. For example, the timing of the Perry mission is probably related to the administration's desire to avoid a dangerous confrontation elsewhere when it is militarily preoccupied in the Balkans. In most cases, however, the administration is reacting to growing domestic opposition to sanctions. Measured in terms of the political change it has forced in target countries, the isolation strategy has clearly flopped. The worst rogues are still in power. While "moderates" led by President Mohammad Khatami appear to be gaining ground in Iran, this has occurred despite, rather than because of, U.S. pressure. Moreover, there is no evidence in any of these countries that a base is being created for the emergence of a democratic opposition.

In addition, neither of the two global threats--terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction--that U.S. policymakers blame on rogue states has substantially lessened. In fact, growing national resentment of what are perceived to be heavy-handed U.S. attempts to force other countries to comply with Washington's policies has almost certainly reduced international pressure on these states to end their support for terrorism and their efforts to acquire biological, chemical and nuclear weapons.

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