Deciding What's Crucial

September 26, 1993|By DIMITRI SIMES

In the United States, foreign policy traditionally begins at

home. Differentiating what is truly crucial for the nation as a whole from what reflects only parochial interests is not an easy task. But, unless we are able to make some informed distinctions, America's standing in the world is likely to suffer.

Most international situations in which the United States is asked to play a role are not so clear-cut as was sponsoring the peace agreement between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization at both parties' request and with the enthusiastic approval of most nations.

It is fairly apparent that it is in America's interest to protect important allies and to negotiate favorable trade agreements.

And even here there may be considerable uncertainties -- the case of Kuwait is illustrative. But the gains of decisive action outweigh the losses.

If defining U.S. interests was not difficult enough in itself, Americans must also grapple with the complex issues of global morality. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States -- as the only remaining superpower -- has been besieged with foreign claimants representing numerous causes that, they argue, deserve U.S. support.

Americans are moral people. Traditionally, they have been uncomfortable with policy that is guided strictly by narrowly defined security and economic considerations. It is important to Americans to feel like knights on white horses, although they are not always prepared to pay for the ride.

Accordingly, with the United States no longer bound by the constraints of the East-West rivalry, many in the political elite feel an irresistible temptation to correct the world's wrongs. But do we always have the expertise and judgment to act as guardians of international morality?

There are outrages that speak for themselves. Stalin's purges, the Holocaust and the killing fields in Cambodia are clearly in this special category. In all these cases, innocent and defenseless nTC civilians were massacred in huge numbers although they represented no conceivable threat to the butchers. Anyone who has the power to stop such massacres but opts to wash his hands has something missing as a human being.

Unfortunately, even in situations that are black and white, there may be instances when the outside world can do relatively little. What would the U.S. options be if a neofascist regime came to power in Russia and began killing people left and right -- but always within Russia's own borders? As long as Moscow controls thousands of strategic nuclear warheads, it is difficult to imagine a U.S. president ordering military action.

And what happens when offenses against humanity do not reach apocalyptic proportions and occur in regions Americans know little about? Then, regrettably, too often what passes for moral judgment represents a combination of domestic pressures, media whims and electoral politics.

Consider the horrifying television pictures of the Serb artillery bombardment of Sarajevo. The Clinton administration threatened to use U.S. air power to save the besieged city's civilian population. A lot of American pundits criticized the administration for not going beyond words.

Yet, both the Clinton administration and the same out-of-government hawks typically were silent when, for several days running, the Israeli government used its artillery against the civilian population of southern Lebanon. Up to 300,000 villagers became refugees as a result. And all this was done to intimidate the Lebanese government so it would exert pressure on the Hezbollah guerrillas operating in the area not to attack Israel proper or the Israeli security zone in Lebanon.

Mind you, Jerusalem did not claim that the authorities in Beirut -- to say nothing about the intended civilian victims of the Israeli artillery fire in southern Lebanon -- supported or even condoned the Hezbollah attacks. The Jewish state simply decided to put its own security and lives of its own citizens first and do whatever was necessary to protect them.

This is not to condemn Israel. The United States acted in similar fashion when it dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. When a nation is involved in a life-and-death struggle, its primary responsibility is to its own people and the criteria of what is permissible become tragically broad.

In the case of Serbia, however, we apply different norms than we do for ourselves and for our allies and friends. This is not moral; it is a double standard.

And acting on a bias, particularly with military force, against a small nation -- even one with a despicable leadership like Serbia's -- is no virtue.

Similarly, it is neither a virtue nor a favor to U.S. interests to allow U.S. policy on such an important issue as relations with Russia to be dictated by domestic expediency.

Organizations of Baltic Americans and Ukrainian Americans inundate congressional offices with telegrams and telephone calls demanding punishment of Russia after any disagreement it has with their native lands. Russia does not have an ethnic lobby in the United States.

And, since it is often a balance of pressures rather than logical arguments that determines congressional positions, Russia frequently finds itself on the receiving end of Capitol Hill's disdain.

A great deal of what is happening in Russia today should legitimately concern the United States. Illusions about Russia are contrary to U.S. interests. But so is moralistic posturing based on U.S. domestic politics rather than on the realities in the post-Soviet region.

Dimitri Simes is chairman of the Center for Russian and Eurasian Programs at the Carnegie Endowment for World Peace. He wrote this commentary for Newsday.

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