U.S. presidents smitten by those friendly tyrants

March 01, 1992|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- In October 1989, President Bush signed a national security directive ordering an improvement in relations with Iraq.

Secretary of State James A. Baker III and other top officials swung into action, moving forward with $1 billion in agriculture credits, commercial ties and even transfers of technology with potential military uses -- all despite Saddam Hussein's internal repression and use of torture and poison gas.

Hardly a year later, Mr. Bush was vilifying the Iraqi leader and girding the nation for war to drive him from Kuwait.

To critics, the 1989 overture was typical of a risky Bush tendency to embrace strategically important authoritarian regimes while paying only lip-service to the principles of democracy and human rights that help form America's moral standing in the world.

"There's a distinctive category reserved for Republican presidents: they seem to have an affinity for dictators," says Michael Mandelbaum, a professor of foreign policy at Johns Hopkins' School of Advanced International Studies. Mr. Bush, he said, was "the friend at court of a clearly tyrannical regime."

The Bush administration is unapologetic over its 1989 overture to Iraq, although a senior official concedes it was a mistake to let some militarily useful technology slip into Saddam Hussein's hands.

"Iraq by and large emerged from the [1980-1988 Iran-Iraq] war as the most powerful local country in a part of the world where we have vital interests," a senior official says.

"The question was whether we could get it to act in ways that were in our interests" by offering incentives to improve dialogue. "It was worth the try, given that we had cooperated [in the war] and given that we didn't have a consensus here or in the region to isolate Iraq."

American presidents of both parties from time to time have pursued ties with unsavory regimes as the best of a bad bargain and in the belief that talking, rather than isolating, achieved greater leverage.

Jimmy Carter, for whom human rights were a priority, imposed sanctions and other forms of pressure against the Somoza regime in Nicaragua and repeatedly denounced the Chilean regime of Augusto Pinochet.

But Mr. Carter gave a higher priority to arms control than to human rights in his dealings with the Soviet Union. And he followed his predecessors in supporting the regime of the shah of Iran as a crucial ally in an oil-rich region bordered by the Soviet Union, sticking by him after his fate was sealed. To his own peril, as it turned out, when the Iranian hostage crisis helped topple his presidency.

Ronald Reagan backed a Salvadoran military rife with human rights abuses and pursued "constructive engagement" with South Africa's apartheid regime. But he denounced Paraguay as a dictatorship in 1985, openly sponsoring efforts to bring about democracy.

Presidents likewise have been willing to abandon longtime allies when they were no longer useful or had been undermined by their own excesses. Thus, Mr. Reagan helped in the removal of Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

Overall, the Bush administration has been guided by its perception of America's strategic interests in determining how to deal with other governments, not letting its support for democracy or human rights dominate the relationship. It has also put a premium on talking rather than isolating.

Richard N. Haass, now a top adviser to President Bush on the Middle East, wrote an essay before joining the administration that, while not official policy, serves as a useful guide.

"Promoting democracy is a proper interest of the United States, but it is not the only interest nor is it even in all circumstances the most important one," Mr. Haass wrote in "Friendly Tyrants," a collection of papers assembled by the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia.

The administration has battled congressional pressure for tough sanctions against China following the Tiananmen massacre and disclosures of China's weapons and technology sales to the Middle East, arguing that to do so would undermine America's ability to influence China.

It has opened a high-level dialogue with North Korea while increasingly making an issue of Kim Il Sung's nuclear ambitions and exports of weapons technology.

After linking diplomatic ties to Central Asian republics with their acceptance of democratic principles, Mr. Baker dropped that as a condition, saying only that their behavior will affect the depth and richness of their relations with the U.S.

The administration pressed -- but only up to a point -- for democratization in Kuwait, but has avoided any similar rhetoric toward Saudi Arabia's monarchy.

Nowhere has President Bush kept strategic interests more uppermost than in his projection of military force.

He invaded Panama and removed Manuel Antonio Noriega after the dictator's role in drug trafficking and money-laundering was seen to pose a threat that outweighed his one-time usefulness against possible Communist insurgencies.

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