US Policy Toward `Villains'

THE Clinton administration has, for the moment, reached an agreement with Cuba on the problem of immigration. Such single-issue accords relieve immediate pressures but do not deal with longer-term United States relations with the island republic. As far as Washington is concerned, the resolution of that question, as with other ``outlaw'' regimes - Haiti, Iraq, Libya, Iran - depends on the collapse or overthrow of the leadership. Washington may deny this premise, but the leaders involved have no illusions about ultimate US objectives. So, how can an administration negotiate basic improvements in relations with governments the US seeks to displace?

Despite wars, threats, covert actions, and sanctions, Fidel Castro Ruz, Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras, Saddam Hussein, Col. Muammar Qaddafi, and the Iranian ayatollahs are still in place. In each case, the regime has proven to be stronger than assumed. Whether protected by security services or family and tribal links, the despots have remained secure against internal agitation. External threats often strengthen nationalism. Regimes gain favor by blaming Washington and convincing citizens they are better off.

Whatever the reasons, the US is frustrated in its efforts to affect these societies internally. The flight of refugees from Cuba and Haiti has caused as many problems for Washington as for Havana and Port-au-Prince. US efforts to build political movements among exiles encounter disorganization and divisions. The only perceived alternative is military action, if feasible.

Washington has shown a readiness, however, to be less confrontational when serious mutual interests are involved - without changes in regimes. The nuclear issue forced a change in policy toward North Korea, even before Kim Il Sung's death. Despite China's assault on democracy, the US has determined that reasonable relations are in America's national interest. Washington is moving toward normal relations with the regime in Hanoi. Talks by the Secretary of State with President Hafez al-Assad of Syria mark the Middle East peace process.

It is reasonable to ask if US policy toward other ``villains'' should be reconsidered. Perhaps long-term US interests in orderly transitions and democratic reforms are not served by isolation and threats. Voices of internal opposition, especially those identified with America, fear to speak out. Sanctions prevent outside influences that might stimulate change. Internal collapse or civil strife can bring more chaos than change.

Yet the obstacles to alternative policies are formidable. Strong domestic lobbies and congressional sentiment oppose change. Relatives of the victims of Pan Am 107 want no warming in relations with Mr. Qaddafi, who will not release the perpetrators of this tragedy. Many Cuban-Americans dream of returning to Havana and see their only hope in Castro's fall. American opinion on Haiti is divided. Recent history blocks rapprochement between the US and Iran.

Negotiating with such regimes is not easy. Americans proposing changes in approach are called appeasers. Suspicion exists on both sides. There must be a delicate balance between making progress and agreeing prematurely to concessions. The US is hesitant to grant legitimacy to outlaws. In diplomatic contacts, the US cannot set aside issues - elections, human rights, and press freedom - that despots see as threats.

Leaders who consider that the US's primary diplomatic objective is their overthrow are not likely to have much incentive to improve relations. Washington, with little domestic political incentives for change, continues to hope such regimes will self-collapse. Perhaps such impasses are inevitable, but they provide little prospect for orderly transitions and future relations.

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