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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 27, June 1998

Clinton Administration Strongly Criticises Congress on Sanctions

On 9 June, the US House of Representatives passed legislation requiring the Clinton Administration to impose sanctions against companies identified as assisting Iran's missile-development programme. The vote - 392 to 22 - comfortably exceeded the two-thirds majority required to over-ride a Presidential veto. Similar legislation - which requires the Administration to draw up a list of entities to be sanctioned within 30 days - was passed, by a similarly emphatic margin (90-4), in the Senate on 22 May (see last issue). The House version names a different start-date for sanctionable activity: 22 January 1998, the date Russia announced new export controls, as opposed to the Senate's choice of 8 August 1995, the date of Russian accession to the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). President Clinton proceeded to veto the House bill on 24 June (see Documents and Sources for the text of his statement); the inevitable Congressional over-ride was expected to be confirmed shortly.

The President's veto was motivated partly in protest at the bill's evident intention to punish Russian companies, at a time when the Administration sees progress being made by the Russian Government in tightening export controls. It also reflects a growing analytical chasm between the Administration and Congress over the efficacy of sanctions to deter and prevent proliferation. Speaking on 23 June, White House spokesperson Mike McCurry summed up the Administration's critique of Congress' approach: "There's no flexibility…that allows the President to work through problems… These sanctions regimes generally, because they are efforts by Congress to micro-manage and legislate outcomes, produce hopeless shackles on the Presidency…"

Speaking on CNN Television on 14 June, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright expressed her exasperation at the "proliferation of sanctions legislation" in Congress:

"It's all sticks and no carrots… We have all the sticks or the sledgehammers, and then other countries can go in and pick up the contracts. … We are responsible for implementing US foreign policy and we need some flexibility… If we have to sanction every country because its religious laws do not fit America's and we have to sanction every country in the world as a result of it, it sure doesn't leave us much operating room…"

Some Democrats in Congress beg to differ. Referring to the vetoed legislation, Representative Howard Berman (California) observed (24 June): "This bill does exactly what the Administration said it wanted… It sanctions companies, not countries, that sell weapons technologies…" Earlier, however, Democrat House Leader Dick Gephardt (Missouri) backed the President's stand. Speaking shortly before the 9 June vote, Gephardt argued: "Russia's leaders have received the message of this bill and have begun to address our concerns… [This legislation] would in effect demonstrate admission of defeat, that we have failed to influence Russia's Government with this problem."

The same message was phrased graphically by National Security Advisor Sandy Berger on 17 June: "What this bill does is it says no good deed goes unpunished. … We will take those people who are trying to bring this under control and cut their legs from under them by saying that the response is that America will impose sanctions on them. I think it is a fundamental, profound mistake." Berger added:

"I think there is a sense that we have perhaps overused, reacted too quickly, with sanctions as a policy response to problems. I think we have to look…with a greater degree of scrutiny in the aggregate to make sure that we're not piling one of these regimes after another and simply undermining America's influence."

Reports: House passes Iran sanctions bill, Associated Press, 9 June; House approves Iran missile sanctions aimed at Russian firms, United States Information Service, 10 June; House approves Iran sanctions, veto expected, Reuters, 10 June; Albright criticizes US sanctions, Associated Press, 15 June; Clinton firm on Iran sanctions measure, United Press International, 17 June; Clinton vetoes Iran sanctions bill, Reuters, 24 June.

© 1998 The Acronym Institute.

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