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    What America Thinks
    Doing the Right Thing on Trade Sanctions

    By Richard Morin
    Washington Post Polling Director
    Monday, Sept. 28, 1998

    Americans strongly support continuing economic sanctions against Iran and Libya, but relatively few are willing to punish other countries for trading with our enemies, according to a new national survey.

    The poll also found that attitudes toward Cuba, another longstanding target of U.S. economic sanctions, have softened. A bare majority currently support continuing our trade blockade, and a majority now favor resuming diplomatic relations.

    No such sympathy was expressed for Libya or Iran, nations that have been at the top of America's list of rogue states for their support of international terrorism and their apparent lust to acquire weapons of mass destruction.

    In fact, support for economic sanctions against those two countries is so strong that big majorities support trade restrictions even if the United States stands alone, according to the survey conducted by the program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland.

    Three in four survey respondents say the United States should refuse to trade with either Libya or Iran "whether or not our allies do, because it is the right thing to do and eventually our allies might follow our example."

    A somewhat smaller but still large majority also rejected the argument, made by many of our European allies that continue to trade with these countries, that economic engagement through trade is the best way to persuade these countries to forsake terrorism and development of weapons of mass destruction.

    According to the survey, 57 percent of those interviewed agreed with the statement that "just trading and talking with Iran and Libya won't cause them to change" noting that the leaders of these countries will go straight only if "there are costs for their behavior."

    Slightly more than a third — 36 percent — agreed that economic sanctions against nations "rarely lead them to change" and that by trading with our enemies, "we can maintain a relationship with them that creates opportunities to exert a positive influence."

    "Respondents were even more unequivocal in rejecting the argument that sanctions only hurt the masses in Iran and Libya," wrote principal investigator Steven Kull.

    The survey found that more than two in three — 68 percent — expressed sympathy for the economic pain the average citizen felt, but agreed that "stopping the support of terrorists and the pursuit of weapons of destruction is so important that it is necessary to try to put pressure on their government to change."

    Fewer than one in four — 23 percent — opted for the alternative, agreeing that sanctions "will just hurt the masses of average people there, without affecting the people on top who make the decisions that cause the problems."

    But there's little appetite for punishing other nations who continue to trade with our enemies by imposing so-called extraterritorial sanctions. Not even a third — 32 percent — of those interviewed said we should pressure our European allies to stop trading with Iran and Libya "by restricting their ability to do business with us."

    Even when survey respondents said that the United States currently can punish Libya and Iran's trade partners under the so-called D'Amato Act, fewer than half — 45 percent — said they supported extraterritorial sanctions. (While such penalties can be imposed, President Clinton has repeatedly granted waivers so that no significant penalties have ever been applied.)

    But the survey also found that attitudes have softened toward another longtime enemy of the United States, Cuba, also the target of a U.S. trade embargo.

    "Support for the embargo on Cuba is quite soft," Kull reported. "The majority in support is slight, and when presented with arguments for and against the embargo, a slight majority opposes it. Also, a majority favors moderating the embargo to allow food and medicine, and is now supportive of reestablishing diplomatic relations."

    By a 56 percent to 39 percent margin, those surveyed said the United States should resume diplomatic relations with Cuba after a four-decade freeze. This result suggests a surge in support for recognizing Cuba in just the past two years. In a 1996 Gallup poll, only 40 percent supported reestablishing diplomatic relations with the island nation while 49 percent were opposed.

    However, Kull noted that "this support for reestablishing diplomatic relations may be soft." In a January 1998 ABC poll that recounted the breaking of diplomatic, trade and travel relations in response to Cuba becoming "a communist country under Fidel Castro in 1959," a majority — 56 percent — opposed establishing diplomatic relations and 38 percent favored it.

    "For some respondents, such a question may have elicited support for the embargo historically, rather than measuring support for current options," Kull wrote. "Nonetheless, it suggests that support for reestablishing diplomatic relations can be easily deflected."

    The survey also found that support for penalizing Cuba's trade partners is even lower. Nearly eight in 10 — 78 percent — agreed that "we do not have the right to tell other countries what to do. Penalizing them for trading with Cuba is too high-handed and will create tensions with our allies."

    The survey was conducted in three waves between Febuary and April of 1998. Sample sizes varied from 600 to 2,747, and the margin of sampling error ranged from plus or minus 2 percentage points to plus or minus 4 percentage points.

    Richard Morin is director of polling for The Washington Post. "What Americans Think" appears Mondays in The Washington Post National Weekly Edition. Morin can be reached at morinr@clark.net .

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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