The U-turn President Clinton made on Nigeria during his African tour is tantamount to a law-enforcement agency promising kidnappers they could become the legitimate parents of the abducted child if they apply for adoption through the proper channels.
In 1993, the elected president of Nigeria, Moshood Abiola, was prevented from taking office and Gen. Sani Abacha seized power. In opposition to this suspension of democracy and the execution of nine Ogoni activists two years later, the United States withdrew its ambassador, suspended foreign assistance (except humanitarian aid) and arms sales, and restricted visas. In 1996, Mr. Clinton proposed sanctions that would have prohibited investments and frozen the overseas assets of Nigeria's rulers; the measure collapsed due to lack of international support and US reluctance to act unilaterally.
In contrast to this established policy, Clinton has suggested a new approach of accommodation. During a press conference with President Mandela in South Africa last month, Clinton said the US would try to "persuade" Abacha to move toward "general democracy and respect for human rights" and would recognize him as the legitimate leader of Nigeria if he held and won an election as a civilian.
"There are many military leaders who have taken over chaotic situations in African countries, but have moved toward democracy," Clinton said. "And that can happen in Nigeria ...." This is no less than an alarming reversal of US policy toward the suspension of democracy abroad, contradicting efforts to enforce respect for the constitutional transfer of power in countries such as Haiti, Burma, and Guatemala. It also diverges from our policy of refusing to negotiate with violators of the international rule of law, such as hostage takers. The primary external disincentive to coup-plotters has been the label of illegitimacy branded by the world community and the resulting policies of intervention - through sanctions, suspension of aid, and even military action - when a democratically elected government has been either prevented from taking office or removed from office by force. Clinton's proposed cooperation with the military government of Nigeria could only encourage those contemplating unconstitutional means of acquiring power. Far from promising to support election thieves who promise to uphold external indications of democracy, such as elections, the US should pledge to uphold the rule of law and refuse to negotiate with individuals who interrupt democracy. Without this prior commitment, the US government will always be tempted to cooperate with the illegitimate leaders. This kind of approach complements both the international policy toward hostage takers and the worldwide development of personal culpability exemplified by the ad-hoc war crimes tribunals and the efforts to create a permanent international criminal court.
At its core, the new Nigerian policy mis-identifies the problem: Abacha's undesirability as the leader of Nigeria doesn't stem from his being a military leader, but from his disregard for democracy and human rights - despite the contradictory and successful effort by Nigeria to restore democracy to Sierra Leone. Clinton's offer of legitimacy to Abacha is certainly no example to hold out to others. If the US wants to promote democracy and the international rule of law, then its new policy toward the illegitimate government of Nigeria is a dangerous reversal.
* Morton H. Halperin, who served on the National Security Council from 1994 to 1996, is senior vice-president of the Twentieth Century Fund. Kristen Lomasney is a research fellow in the Washington office of the fund, an economic and political research foundation.