WASHINGTON — PRESIDENT BUSH'S defense for keeping hands off as Saddam Hussein ruthlessly suppresses Iraqis who responded to Bush's call to overthrow him -- that it is an internal matter for Iraqis to deal with -- sounds very hollow in light of his own and his recent predecessors' history. While espousing the principle of self-determination for all people, recent American presidents have not been restrained from intervening when it has suited their foreign-policy objectives.
Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard M. Nixon and Gerald R. Ford all committed U.S. forces to the Vietnamese civil war. Jimmy Carter sent arms to the rebels in Afghanistan and Ronald Reagan to those in Angola. He also mined the harbors in Nicaragua in his effort to oust the Sandinista regime and invaded Grenada. George Bush invaded Panama and seized its dictator, Manuel Noriega, before attacking Iraq in the brief Persian Gulf war.
It is understandable, given this bipartisan history, that American presidential preachments on the idealism of the American way of life so often fall on cynical ears elsewhere in the world. When American words are not matched by American behavior, the casualty is the moral force of this country in foreign policy, and the current aloofness of the White House to the killing in Iraq well illustrates the point.
Oppressed people in other countries learned long ago that the United States only selectively puts its money where its mouth is. Ever since the start of the Cold War in Europe, for example, it was a standard element of U.S. foreign policy to call for the liberation of "the Captive Nations" in Central and Eastern Europe, with assurances via Radio Free Europe and the Voice of America that the United States was four-square behind their aspirations.
But in 1956, when oppressed Hungarians took to the streets against Soviet tanks with the expectation that help would come from the encouraging West, they instead ran smack up against the reality that the United States was not going to risk a nuclear confrontation for their sake. To salve a collective guilty conscience, the United States and other Western countries lowered immigration barriers and accepted hundreds of thousands of Hungarian refugees -- after the revolution was put down with much bloodshed.
Once again, in 1968, the Prague Spring uprising in Czechoslovakia came and went without any U.S. military response. Even when Eastern Europe in late 1989 began to unshackle itself from the communist grip, the Bush administration's actions did not match its rhetoric in support of self-determination. And when Moscow started squeezing the Baltic states, the administration gave little more than lip service to their aspirations for independence.
All of this does not suggest that the United States should or can leap in wherever oppressed people try to break their political bondage. But as long as American presidents continue to offer what often is false hope by their excessive rhetoric, the moral credibility of the United States is going to be undermined.
In the most recent situation, Bush's equating Saddam Hussein with Adolf Hitler and his repeated encouragement to Iraqis to get rid of him carried the clear if only implicit suggestion that the United States would stand by them if they tried. The CIA's record of involvement in other countries' affairs, covert or overt, is so well established that it is laughable to suggest it is consistent U.S. policy to leave internal quarrels to the principal disputants.
The administration's position now is that the mandate from the U.N. was only to liberate Kuwait, and that has been done. But Resolution 678 also calls for efforts to establish "international peace and security in the area," and it is begging the issue to say what is going on now solely inside Iraq does not effect the latter.
One Democrat who voted against the use of force originally, Sen. John Glenn of Ohio, acknowledges that Bush's encouragement to overthrowing Saddam "is a little reminiscent of (U.S. rhetoric at the time of) the Hungarian Revolution." But if Bush should decide to back up his words this time, he emphasizes, "it should be done by the U.N. coalition" so that Saddam cannot use unilateral intervention to further fan Arab animosity toward the United States in the area. As matters stand now, however, George Bush appears satisfied with being a cheerleader for self-determination in the bloody aftermath of his war in the gulf.