Sanctions are a favorite instrument of U.S. foreign policy, but the Clinton administration seems to be having second thoughts. Recently, at a White House meeting with evangelical leaders, the President told the group that well intentioned sanctions were getting in the way of U.S. interests. His statement echoes a report issued last July by the President’s Export Council, which recommended the elimination of unilateral sanctions against Cuba, Iran, Libya, Burma, Sudan, and other countries.

If the assembled “Billy Bibles” were confused, they may have begun to get the point when a National Security Council document obtained by the Washington Times revealed the administration’s plans to speed up the export of missile technology to China. Michael Chapman, writing in Investor’s Business Daily, points out that the United States has already supplied China with a nuclear fission reactor, even though CIA sources say “China was the single most important supplier of equipment and technology for weapons of mass destruction worldwide . . . and . . . a key supplier of nuclear technology to Iran.”

Critics of sanctions do have a valid point. Foreign policy should be based on national interest, rather than on idealistic theories of human rights. But the administration is caught on the horns of a dilemma that it has helped to create. In recent years, sanctions have been used against Iran, Yugoslavia, Libya, Iraq, China, Burma, and Cuba (among other countries), usually on the grounds of human rights violations. In fact, however, sanctions are often used not as an instrument of human rights but as a tool of American foreign policy. The governments of Cuba and Burma have both committed atrocities against their own citizens, but their record of abuse is trivial compared with what the rulers of China have done over the past 50 years. And yet China has received Most Favored Nation status.

China’s defenders like to focus on the Tiananmen Square massacre and argue that, since then, the Chinese government has pursued a program of liberalization. But the attack on the prodemocracy protesters was a minor incident in a history of oppression that includes tens of millions of Chinese citizens killed during the Cultural Revolution, to say nothing of the Chinese government’s program of forced sterilization, compulsory abortion, and infanticide.

Some sanctions have been aimed at aggressor nations that invade their neighbors or export terrorism—Libya and Iraq, for example. But China is unexcelled in aggression. Since the 1960’s, the Chinese have been involved in border clashes with the Russians, and they have aided the bellicose North Koreans. They shelled Taiwanese islands and tried to eliminate traditional Mongol and Turkish cultures within their own territory. After conquering Tibet, they have done their best to destroy the religion and culture of its people.

But whatever its crimes, China is forgiven because it offers opportunities to American military industrialists down on their luck. Iraq and Yugoslavia are not so lucky. In those countries, the people are held accountable for the crimes of their leaders. Food and medicines have been subject to a de facto blockade. The results in Iraq have been catastrophic—perhaps a million civilian deaths since the end of the Gulf War, half of them children.

Let us be honest. “Sanction” is now a euphemism for embargo, and the U.S. government uses the two words interchangeably. An embargo is either an act of war or a preparation for war. It has nothing to do with human rights or humanitarianism. A real sanction is “the specific penalty enacted in order to enforce obedience to a law.” But the United States does not have the authority to impose, unilaterally, a legal penalty on foreign countries. Nonetheless, our government not only declared its own sanctions against Yugoslavia, over and above the U.N. sanctions, but it also reserves the right, as a member of the Security Council, to reimpose the U.N. sanctions that have been suspended.

Yugoslavia’s recent attempt to repress a rebellion in Kosovo has resulted in the call to reactivate sanctions, but Turkey, which is carrying out a wholesale extermination of the Kurds, is not even criticized. The Turks are, after all, our allies—and good customers, too.

In calling for a more pragmatic approach to sanctions. Bill Clinton is once again throwing sand in the eyes of the American people. The truth is, he wants to sell military technology to the bloodiest regime of the 20th century. At the same time his government is denying food and medicine to the children of Iraq. Will he get away with this brutal hypocrisy? Of course. Missiles to China mean jobs and votes, and if there is any moral dimension to the deal, that is strictly between the President and his wife.