WASHINGTON — Washington.-- President Bush is confused. In his anxiety to protect trade relations with China he has mistaken personal predilection for moral principle. In doing so, he has highlighted the peculiar inconsistency of his administration's stance regarding two of the ''holdouts'' of the Communist world, Beijing and Havana.
In his commencement address to the Yale graduating class Mr. Bush justified his support for China's most-favored-nation status terms of universally applicable moral principles.
''Some argue that a nation as moral and just as ours should not taint itself by dealing with nations less moral, less just,'' he said. ''But this counsel offers up self-righteousness draped in a false morality. You do not reform a world by ignoring it. . . . The most compelling reason to renew MFN . . . is not economic, it's not strategic, but moral. . . . It is wrong to isolate China if we hope to influence China. . . . No nation on earth has discovered a way to import the world's goods and services while stopping foreign ideas at the border. . . . We cannot advance principles if we curl up into a defensive ball.''
The speech writers did their job. Those phrases are elegant, even inspiring. The problem is that Mr. Bush does not seek to implement them in a similar case: Cuba.
Fidel Castro's island, like China, clings to an ideology considered outmoded by most of the rest of the world. The Cuban Communist Party, like its Chinese counterpart, is engaged in an intense debate between reformists who would like to see a greater role for market forces and some political liberalization and hard-liners wedded to the status quo. Havana, like Beijing, has a poor record on human rights and stands accused of exporting weapons to Washington's rivals.
If trade with the United States inevitably causes the citizens living under this type of government to be exposed to enlightening foreign ideas which ''no nation on earth'' can stop, as Mr. Bush argued at Yale, then why is there a U.S. trade embargo on Cuba, and why is the Bush administration failing to vigorously oppose efforts by Congress to extend that embargo to third countries? Does Fidel Castro have some extra-terrestrial power to de-link commerce from ideas, which no other leader ''on earth'' possesses? If isolating a country inhibits attempts to influence it, why are U.S. citizens largely prohibited from traveling to Cuba?
The argument that Mr. Castro is so stubborn and so all-powerful that trade and travel would produce results only in the medium to long-term future is undermined by President Bush's own words. ''We can advance our cherished ideals only by extending our hand, showing our best side, sticking patiently to our values, even if we risk rejection,'' he remarked in the Yale speech.
If Mr. Bush's principles are universally applicable, and if we can agree that Cuba is indeed a nation ''on earth'' and not on some distant planet where other political laws apply, then the only lesson one can draw from current U.S. policy toward Cuba is that Washington does not wish to see political change on the island. Such a conclusion is patently ridiculous, so there must be some other explanation. And there is.
Much as President Bush might wish otherwise, U.S. foreign policy is not usually based on grand moral principles that are universally applicable. U.S. foreign policy, like that of most other Western countries, is based on a mix of moral principle, personal predilection, strategic interests and domestic political considerations.
President Bush does not lift the trade embargo against Cuba not because Havana falls in a different moral category than Beijing, but because he was never posted as ambassador to Cuba, does not feel as personally attached to the country as he does to China, and is well aware that the politically active Cuban-American community in Florida would make the Republican party pay a high price for such a perceived betrayal.
Even if the president were to temper his moralistic rhetoric with strategic considerations, the different treatment accorded China and Cuba would be hard to justify. The administration has pointed to China's ''role in working to resolve the conflict in Cambodia.'' It could just as easily point to Cuba's role in resolving the conflicts in Angola and Namibia, which even the South African government, no friend of Castro, evaluates as constructive.
China is strategically important because it contains one fifth of the world's population. Cuba is strategically important because, while a fraction of the size, it is located 90 miles from the U.S. and is therefore capable of disrupting the lives of American citizens with refugee inflows, fallout from a nuclear accident, or, less likely but plausible, some form of direct aggression.
China stands as a possible counterweight to the Soviet Union should that country fall back under the influence of hard-line communists, and therefore may appear worth befriending. Cuba houses a massive Soviet electronic eavesdropping facility at Lourdes, which could provide Moscow with critical intelligence should U.S.-Soviet relations again turn chilly. It is therefore arguably worth exploring if Havana could be persuaded to curtail Moscow's access.
In sum, if Mr. Bush truly wants to apply his moral principles consistently, let him start by extending most-favored-nation status to Cuba.
Otherwise, he should concede that the foreign policy of the United States, like that of France, Britain and the rest of the Western world, often has less to do with principle, or even strategic considerations, than it has to do with personal predilection and domestic political considerations.
Gillian Gunn is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.