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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Handling Rogue States

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 Iraq and Yugoslavia, but easing sanctions on Libya, Iran, Sudan and Cuba. It's even exploring possibilities of rapprochement with North Korea. By creating a possible alternative to traditional diplomatic, economic and military options, the announcement that a United Nations 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.

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, 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 about a month ago, 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 actions of the administration to ease conflicts with rogue regimes.

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 UN 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.''

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 Mohammed 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. policy-makers 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 of terrorism and their efforts to acquire biological, chemical and nuclear weapons.

The implicit premise of the isolation strategy, that the United States as the world's sole remaining superpower has the right and power to define which states qualify as rogues, is fundamentally flawed. Due to the absence of effective mechanisms to establish an international consensus on what constitutes gross violations of human rights and threats to international security, U.S. efforts to isolate and reform rogue states will inevitably fail. In this regard, the United States could end up paying a heavy price for Clinton's decision to marginalize the role of the UN Security Council in the Kosovo conflict.

As long as the administration harshly denounces some dictators and cautiously woos others, it will be difficult to build and maintain support for either approach. The only way to avoid this unproductive outcome is to develop a strategy that can be defended on principle and in practice. Finally, even as it engages rogue states, the administration remains too focused on governments and individuals. Ultimately, the only way to bring about real and lasting changes in the character and behavior of these governments is to change their societies.

There are three ways to do this. First, the administration should abandon efforts to impose unilateral sanctions on rogue states. Instead, it should focus on strengthening international human rights forums and working to expand the growing international consensus on the need for enforceable global norms.

Second, it should develop a systematic strategy to strengthen civil society in rogue states. As a first step, it should commission a series of country-by-country assessments of the impact of past U.S. policies on these societies. A good place to begin would be assessing the effects of the current bombing campaign against Yugoslavia. Finally, the United States should strongly endorse the principle that international courts and tribunals can hold individual leaders accountable for their actions. Toward this end, it should take advantage of the war crimes tribunal's indictment of Milosevic by beginning to shift the burden of confronting the Yugoslav dictator to the United Nations.

Mike Clough is a research associate at the Institute of International Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. He contributed this comment to the Los Angeles Times.