When to Be Tough

THE Bush administration is now facing that perennial foreign-policy conundrum: How tough should it be in criticizing the wrongdoing of other governments? On the one hand, the United States is as strong a champion of human rights as any in the world. On the other hand, it must do business with some of the governments most worthy of its criticism in this area.

Both the Soviet Union and China are good cases in point.

The Soviets have a lot of problems with dissidents. Particularly in the Baltic states, dissidents are bridling under Soviet rule, threatening to assert their independence. They have a case against central government in Moscow.

But should the US encourage them? How far should the US go in egging them on at the risk of alienating the Gorbachev administration? Gorbachev, after all, is the best prospect in many years for bringing reform to the USSR - reform which the US would much like to see.

Some Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians charge, for example, that the Voice of America - the official radio broadcasting operation of the US - is far too limpid and unsupportive in its broadcasts to the Baltic states. Voice of America officials concede - taking their cue from the State Department - they are not in the business of stirring up trouble for Gorbachev in the Baltics.

But while some critics of the administration say it is being too kind to Gorbachev on such issues as human rights, others say President Bush is not being imaginative and forthcoming enough with the Soviet regime. These latter critics believe the US should be working to bolster and expand the Soviet economy, by sending the Soviets sophisticated computer and other technology.

It is a tough call: Sound the clarion loudly for ethnic dissidents in the USSR - perhaps inciting them to the point where they threaten a reformist regime in Moscow - or tone down the criticism and take the heat for being mute on human rights.

Then there is China.

The Bush administration was slow to criticize the June harassment of students in Tiananmen Square. Mr. Bush himself was the American envoy to Beijing in earlier years. American relationships with China had been steadily improving. The administration was reluctant to jeopardize that improvement.

The massacre of students changed all that. The Bush administration spoke out forthrightly and took some moderately punitive measures against China. But it has remained relatively close-lipped, hoping to keep the lines of communication open with a country of major importance to the US. The delicate American balancing act was perhaps influenced by the Soviets - who downplayed their own criticism of the Chinese regime.

Many foreign policy officials are torn in their assessment of the situation. Says former American ambassador to Beijing Winston Lord in the current issue of Foreign Affairs: ``Our strategic imperative is to preserve a long-term relationship [with China]. Our moral imperative is to project our principles as we survive this cold season of suppression.''

The American people are more dogmatically critical of China, according to a just-released Gallup survey. By an overwhelming majority (87 per cent), they think the Chinese regime's actions against the students were wrong.

Only one-third of US citizens now have a favorable view of China. Most have little confidence that China can make a peaceful transition to a multi-party system. More than 60 percent doubt that China will allow Hong Kong to maintain its free-enterprise system after the colony is returned to China in 1997. Almost 70 percent think China would not allow Taiwan to remain politically, economically, and militarily autonomous should the two countries reunify.

There appears to be strong sentiment for the US to speak out more critically of China. But that would make it even more difficult for the US to do business with an already prickly Beijing regime.

It is for wrestling with such dilemmas that politicians and foreign policy experts get paid.

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