Polonius' counsel

A. M. Rosenthal

December 27, 1990|By A. M. Rosenthal

NEW YORK — FOR AT least two years, warnings came constantly from Soviet citizens at home or traveling abroad. They said that under Mikhail Gorbachev their country was headed for disaster and dictatorship.

ZTC In the past six months or so, every day brought news about Stalinists and fascists in the military, the KGB, and the government growing more ferocious in their demands A.M.Rosenthalfor crackdown.

All the while, Gorbachev drew closer to the KGB and strengthened it. He delivered annoyed threats against the pesky democrats -- the only hope to bring about the end of Soviet communism.

But all the while, Bush-Baker policy kept placing its hopes and its reputation behind this one man. For him, Washington ignored the warnings of the Soviet democratic groups.

For him, Washington betrayed the American promise of freedom so often made to the Baltic nations. And to him the U.S. sends the food and other assistance that he will channel through the corrupt, collapsing government machinery.

Finally, Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze seized the attention of the world by saying exactly what Soviet democrats have been saying for so long -- dictatorship threatens.

Even so, Washington, and some of the American "specialists" on the Soviet Union who have gambled their careers on Gorbachev, is still trying to avoid the truth. Even now, Secretary of State James Baker tacitly gives his approval to the use of force to put down "ethnic" problems -- the code word for national self-rule.

Now, Iraq. We are at the brink of war because a dictator that Washington tried so hard and so long to appease quite understandably developed for us not friendship, but contempt.

And as the United States is deciding how to get out of one Middle East trap it laid for itself, it prepares one more by appeasing and strengthening another dictator -- Hafez al-Assad of Syria.

Washington places its hopes for the Middle East future in a paste-up "coalition" of Arab rulers who helped Iraq achieve military power -- and will again given the chance.

To pay them off, Washington pushes aside Israel, the one Middle Eastern country that has staked its future on democracy. The United States submits to pressure at the U.N. for one attack on Israel after another. But payoffs fail -- the price keeps rising.

The connection stares at us. It is the abandonment by the United States of its greatest asset, its most powerful tool and what should be its primary national goal in foreign affairs: the support of and from democratic movements.

This is not sentimentalism. It is the essence of realism. Democracies do not threaten us or other democracies. Dictatorships do, constantly.

Over more than 40 years of work and travel as a reporter at the U.N., as a foreign correspondent, editor and columnist, I have experienced so wonderfully often how much this country means to the hope of freedom. In the questions of Madras students studying American history.

In Warsaw, where in the depths of Communist repression, Poles threw flowers at then-Vice President Nixon because he represented the America they loved and trusted. In the voice of Soviet dissidents imprisoned in a cold Ural camp.

That is where our strength and political base lies: in the hopes and trust of those who yearn for democracy, nowhere else.

Sometimes the United States responds to voices of freedom, burnishing our name, strengthening our souls. But so sadly often, as now in the Soviet Union, the Middle East and China, our administrations reject the strengths and hopes of democratic forces and choose expediency, the last exit on the road to betrayal and failure.

The truth about this country is that it profits or loses, grows in peace or bleeds in war, in direct relation to the health of political democracy abroad. We are forgetting that. But the Bush-Baker policy is not something apart from us. We, and our votes, created it and are responsible for it.

It is not too late for us to speak and for Washington to hear the advice of Polonius to his son:

"This above all: to thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man."

Is there any message more important for a nation of power, living in the grace and truth of freedom?

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