Potent weapon: Make sanctions, not war (yet)

Military action dominates the media coverage, but recent developments underscore, once again, the effectiveness of economic sanctions in punishing rogue regimes and persuading them to rejoin the global community.

Libya's offer to settle with the victims of Pan Am flight 103 if, and only if, sanctions are lifted by the United Nations and the United States, graphically illustrates the impact such measures can have.

Sudan, hurt by its State Department listing as a nation that encourages terrorism, has been falling all over itself to get back in America's good graces.

In 1995, Sudan was reported to have been willing to turn bin Laden over to American authorities, an offer we refused because Clinton's FBI and CIA had not yet discovered his role in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and, hence, did not have grounds to hold him.

Across the Mediterranean, the new democratic regime in Serbia risks domestic unrest by demanding that those wanted for war crimes trials by the Hague turn themselves in again as part of an effort to get sanctions lifted.

Indeed, Pakistani cooperation with the United States in pursuing bin Laden in the first place was likely catalyzed by its desire to end American sanctions imposed in the aftermath of its explosion of a nuclear bomb during the end of the Clinton years.

Though economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation will do nothing to discipline the likes of Saddam Hussein, a dictator willing to make his people suffer in starved silence while he uses secret police to bludgeon them into submission, it works well against most regimes even rogue ones. As our military action clearly brings results, so do our sanctions.

Even though the United States had to go to war with Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic over Kosovo, the threat of economic sanctions were sufficient to give envoy Richard Holbrook the leverage he needed to force the Serbian dictator to curb the role of his war criminal allies in the emerging Bosnian State during a diplomatic high wire act in 1996. As Holbrook attests, Milosevic would never have budged had not sanctions been waiting in the wings.

The most ingenious application of sanctions was that suggested by Republican Alfonse D'Amato, the former New York senator, when he pioneered the passage of economic sanctions against specific companies that helped enrich Iran's oil industry. The D'Amato law requires imposition of a wide range of imaginative sanctions against these companies, even if they're located on foreign soil. It cut off Export-Import Bank and Overseas Private Investment Corporation financing for any such companies and banned them from handling U.S. government bonds.

Unfortunately Clinton, never comfortable with the D'Amato law, waived the sanctions and refused to apply them, bowing to European pressure. Bush would do well to revisit the D'Amato law as he seeks to confront Iran.

The idea of economic sanctions had its origin in Thomas Jefferson's determination to develop alternatives to war in international relations. His first step was to decide to try to buy land rather than kill for it, as he did with the Louisiana Purchase. Faced with British impressments of American sailors, our third president chose to impose an economic embargo rather than go to war with our historic adversary. Jefferson's America was too vulnerable and economic sanctions backfired, but today's United States is such an economic powerhouse that sanctions send a strong message.

There is a tendency on the right of our domestic politics to see sanctions as a weak response and military action as a strong one. But the track record of sanctions suggests that this view of the effectiveness of sanctions and diplomatic isolation is misleading and outdated.

As the United States expands its military clout as the world's only superpower, we must not forget our economic power as the world's largest economy. When national sanctions are coupled with U.N. action, economic boycott can be a particularly potent weapon.

Look at how well it is working.

This story originally appeared in The Hill, a Congress-oriented weekly. Dick Morris is a former political consultant to President Clinton, Senator Trent Lott, Vincente Fox, and other political figures. His new book, Power Plays: Win or Lose, is published by Harper Collins.