WASHINGTON — In mid-1990, the State Department's top human-rights official pressed in vain for the administration to back a congressional resolution branding Iraq as a gross violator of human rights.
No one disputed the facts, given Iraq's use of chemical warfare against its own Kurdish population, recalls the official, Richard Schifter. But senior policy makers still believed in those pre-Gulf crisis days that Saddam Hussein might be lured into the Western fold with aid and friendly persuasion.
The incident offers an example of how the Bush administration has at times subordinated human rights to strategic goals. It also illustrates the subtle but unmistakable void that may be left when Mr. Schifter, 68, retires April 4 after six years as assistant secretary of state for human rights.
Neither a table-pounder nor soapbox orator, Mr. Schifter agrees, in key areas, with the administration's preference for diplomacy over denunciation in getting countries to improve their human-rights records.
But there are regimes so beyond redemption in their abuses, he believes, that only confrontation will work. Iraq was one. ''If I had been persuaded that we could really effect change in Iraq by a low-key approach, I would have signed on to it,'' he said in a recent interview at the State Department.
He was urged repeatedly to go to Baghdad for the kind of human-rights discussions he has engaged in worldwide. But after studying the Iraqi regime -- and speaking with a high-ranking Iraqi who confided to him that ''we are a brutal people'' -- he decided such a visit would make him just a prop in a pointless staged event.
Burma's brutal military leadership is another. Mr. Schifter urges a comprehensive effort by industrial democracies to isolate the regime, followed by efforts to enlist Asian allies.
''On balance, Secretary Schifter's record reflected a far stronger commitment to human rights than the administration's overall foreign policy,'' says Rep. Gus Yatron, chairman of the House foreign affairs' human-rights subcommittee.
Mr. Schifter, a former president of the Maryland state Board of Education, brought a careful lawyer's case-by-case approach to trying to correct human-rights problems. He is particularly credited with assisting governments in developing and strengthening democratic institutions. Low-key and very softspoken, he is faulted by some human-rights activists for not assuming a higher profile.
''I did not view it to be my role to essentially engage in exercises that, in my assessment, would do nothing other than make people . . . feel good, if it doesn't achieve a purpose.'' Instead, he says, he sought to find whatever way worked to improve the lot of victims.
This approach was driven by his experience as a young man sent here by his parents at 15 to escape the Holocaust. His parents, unable to get out, both died in a concentration camp.
''Even now I keep asking myself, 'What, back then as a youngster, could I have done to have gotten them out?'
''The fact that Hitler was being denounced didn't help them one bit,'' he says.
Once Eduard Shevardnadze became foreign minister of the Soviet Union, he says, the U.S. had a contact with the clout to make things happen on the human-rights front, and no longer had to lambaste the Soviets publicly.
Critics see in this approach a way of avoiding tough battles with policy makers who want to overlook human rights. Holly Burkhalter, of Human Rights Watch, says he ''whitewashed'' the Peruvian military's human-rights record at a time when the administration was trying to enlist the Peruvian army in the drug war. Mr. Schifter counters that his quiet efforts got Peru's army to accept a human-rights training program that has produced a ''sea change'' in its behavior.
But he has no illusion that human rights can, or even should, dominate policy making. ''I have often emphasized that the task of our government is to protect in the first instance the national interest. Fortunately our national interest coincides most often with the human-rights cause,'' he told a recent congressional hearing.
He favors maintaining China's most-favored-nation trade status, believing that as China moves toward a market economy its leaders will have an increasingly tough time keeping a rigid political control over its vast population.
''With China, you have to ask, 'How does our policy approach fit in with the political struggle that's going on? There's really a major contest between old-time Marxist-Leninists and their young incarnations on one side [and] on the other side, people who are sincerely committed to an open society which would be rTC basically democratic in character and allow for market forces to operate.''
Most-favored-nation trade status helps create a segment of the Chinese economy that won't take orders from Beijing, he says. One can't overlook the fact that the United States needs China's vote on the U.N. Security Council, he adds.