WASHINGTON — Washington. IT IS no criticism of the Bush administration to note that it has been driven by circumstances, persuaded by allies and tempted by short-range needs to accept -- even to solicit -- collaborators whose record and morality are no better than the enemy against whom we now mobilize.
Franklin Roosevelt welcomed Josef Stalin into the alliance against Nazi Germany. Harry Truman included unpalatable regimes in the alliances he constructed to contain Stalin. Jimmy Carter accepted Omar Torrijos as his partner for Panama and Pakistan as a helpmate to turn back the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Ronald Reagan first ''tilted'' to Iraq and eventually sold weapons to Iran. Now, Secretary of State James Baker and the Bush administration seek to cement Syria into the coalition marshaled against Iraq.
World politics has forever driven governments to make alliances based on convenience and necessity as well as shared moral principles. It is generally believed a government that wholly eschews Realpolitik can neither long play a significant role in world affairs nor serve its own moral goals.
Opposing aggression, constructing new collective security arrangements, helping maintain independence and order, protecting world access to Middle East oil all require active collaboration with non-democratic governments, many of whose principles and practices do not meet Western standards.
I believe it is possible for the United States to pursue a politics of the greater good and the lesser evil and still remain true to fundamental American principles, providing that we face squarely what we are doing and not pretend that our new unsavory ally has suddenly changed his nature.
Western governments still believe that tilting to Iraq at the time the Ayatollah Khomeini's forces threatened to defeat that government was a reasonable policy. But helping Saddam Hussein develop weapons of mass destruction was quite another matter. So was turning a blind eye to Iraq's use of poison gas against Iranians and Kurds.
Realpolitik did not require that the United States and the West condemn Israel for the destruction of Saddam Hussein's nuclear reactor. To the contrary, realism required that the United States and the West face the fact that Israel was acting in self-defense and in the process benefiting the region. Realpolitik did not require or even permit the United States or others to pretend that Saddam Hussein had become ''some sort of moderate by some sort of standards.''
This self-deception -- purveyed by State Department officials -- was an obstacle to realistic policy in both Washington and Baghdad. ABC's special on the Gulf crisis, aired Sept. 11, described in painful detail the accumulating evidence of Iraq's preparations for invasion, the repeated warnings by the Defense Department, the Central Intelligence Agency and the government of Israel and the dismissal of these warnings by career officials in the State Department (including the Assistant Secretary of State and the U.S. ambassador to Iraq). Because they did not warn Saddam Hussein against aggression but repeatedly affirmed that the United States had no alliance or commitment to Kuwait, Saddam Hussein had no opportunity to realistically assess the probable consequences of seizing Kuwait.
Those errors are now behind us. But the mind-set responsible for them lives on and threatens now to distort American policy toward Syria, whose leader has killed as many people as Saddam Hussein, has as brutally but more cleverly subverted and conquered a neighboring Arab nation and who has direct ties to terrorist attacks on Americans.
It is the famous ''Arabist'' mind-set that is common in the State Department's Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs and in the foreign offices of Europe. Near Eastern Affairs is peopled by intelligent, industrious specialists on the language, culture, history and politics of the Arab world. Many of these have learned to view the world through the eyes of those they have studied and all too often have come to feel a unique indulgence toward Arab strongmen, a special irritation with Israel and a sense that U.S. concerns with democracy and human rights are not quite relevant to their area.
This ''clientism,'' often the other side of the coin of area expertise, distorts U.S. policy, especially with regard to Iraq, Syria, the Palestine Liberation Organization and Israel.
Lebanon is the clearest victim of these policies. That once peaceful, pluralist democracy has been subverted, occupied and nearly destroyed by Syria, the PLO and Israelis defending themselves against the PLO. But the U.S. government, which has joined in U.N. resolutions calling for withdrawal of Israel from Lebanon, has never pushed the United Nations to call for withdrawal of PLO fighters and Syria's occupying armies -- even when there was clear evidence of Syria's role in the bombing of American Marines on a peace-keeping mission.
The same tendency that led the State Department to conclude that the PLO had renounced terrorism and ignored evidence of Saddam Hussein's impending aggression may lead it now to become more entangled with Hafez Assad than is either necessary or desirable.
It may already have led them to underestimate the danger that violent PLO neighbors constitute for Israel and to recommend tacit, offstage linkage of the Israeli/Palestinian issue to the Gulf crisis.
International politics may sometimes justify or even require an alliance with unpalatable leaders or regimes. It never justifies asking unreasonable risks of a democratic ally such as Israel or forgetting that the United States' permanent interests lie with democracy and the democracies.