THERE HAS BEEN much soul-searching since Aug. 2 about failures of American policy that helped to encourage Saddam Hussein's aggression. But not enough attention has been paid to the man whose folly led the way: Ronald Reagan.
In three significant ways, President Reagan gave the Iraqi leader reason to believe that he did not have to worry about American opposition. Reagan played down human rights concerns, winking at horrendous cruelties by Saddam Hussein. He destroyed U.S. energy policy, making us more vulnerable to oil threats. And he treated international law with contempt.
Few recent inhumanities in the world have been as shocking as Iraq's use of poison gas to kill thousands of its own Kurdish citizens in 1988. And it was unconcealed. Reporters went to the devastated villages. The world saw the bodies on television.
And what did the United States do? Secretary of State George Shultz, to his credit, condemned Iraq for the use of chemical weapons. But the larger message sent by the Reagan administration to Saddam Hussein was that it did not care.
The administration lobbied against, and blocked, congressional efforts to impose sanctions on Iraq in 1988 because of the use of poison gas. It continued to extend $500 million a year in credit guarantees to Iraq to buy U.S. food products.
At a special international conference on chemical weapons, held in Paris in January 1989, the United States strongly opposed efforts to name Iraq as a violator. Because the administration gave a low priority to human rights, and because it wanted to sell goods to Iraq, it groveled.
Before the gassing of the Kurds, Saddam Hussein had used chemical weapons in the war with Iran. The Reagan administration made no forceful objection to that either.
"In retrospect, it would have been much better at the time of their use of poison gas . . . if we'd put our foot down." Richard L. Armitage, an assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration, said that after the invasion of Kuwait.
"The mistake we made," he added, "was not pushing very hard and loud for international action." The Reagan administration, in short, missed a chance to deter Saddam Hussein.
Shortly after Reagan was elected president, he said energy conservation meant being too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter. His policy was in keeping with that ignorant sneer.
Funds for research on energy conservation were cut toward the vanishing point. Energy efficiency standards for cars and appliances were cut back, opposed, delayed. And the Reagan administration just about ended the search for solar and other renewable energy sources.
By the conservation measures started in the Carter administration, the United States had reduced its dependence on imported oil to 28 percent of its total supply. Now about half the oil we use is imported.
Ronald Reagan's contemptuous attitude toward international law hardly needs to be described. He reversed the historic American position, going back to Theodore Roosevelt's time, of respect for international law and international legal institutions.
In disregard of treaties and other obligations, the Reagan administration made war on Nicaragua. When Nicaragua sued in the World Court, the Reagan administration rejected the court's judgment and withdrew from its jurisdiction.
Again, Saddam Hussein heard the message he wanted: The United States does not care about international law; it will look the other way if I break the rules.
President Bush carried on the failed Reagan policies. When Congress imposed sanctions on Iraq but allowed a presidential waiver, he waived them -- and his people were on Capitol Hill opposing effective sanctions just a few days before the invasion of Kuwait. He did nothing for energy conservation. His invasion of Panama was another expression of contemptuous disregard for international law.
We can hope that Bush has learned from the experience of these last two months: learned at least that it does not serve American interests to disregard a tyrant's cruelties or to trample on international law.
But Reagan never learned. I thought of him when the recent, superb public television series on the Civil War described how President Buchanan's vacuity helped to bring on the war. Americans paid for that war for 100 years. We shall be paying as long for Ronald Reagan's folly.