Acceptable Behavior

THE Haiti operation is the first independent foreign-policy venture of the Clinton administration. As he did in cutting a deal with North Korea in June, the president used the services of former President Jimmy Carter in getting to ``yes'' with troublesome dictators.

United States vigor in Haiti this week is commendable. Still, the US approaches to Haiti, North Korea, and Bosnia are stopgap measures. The North Korea agreement is already showing signs of unraveling, with Pyongyang asking for billions of dollars before negotiating further. This is not surprising. The Clinton-Carter approach sets down no clear principles other than the avoidance of conflict escalation. This can have major drawbacks during a period of global uncertainty. Ironically, the conflict-resolution strategy may slowly encourage a new level of acceptable repressive behavior.

The world has not taken a ``time out'' to wait for the US to decide its post-cold-war role. Repressive regimes are doing what they always do - pushing their own interests. With the old rules gone, they try to stretch the limits of acceptable behavior. US dealings with Haiti, North Korea, and Bosnia offer prime examples. Aggressors in those countries assume that Western leaders do not want to make sacrifices abroad. They know the power of the media to force action and so they try to keep their aggression within limits.

This spring US Defense Secretary William Perry, when asked about the five nuclear devices North Korea might have, said North Korea probably had only two devices. Why they had even two was not addressed. Last November, Clinton argued that North Korea should not be allowed any weapons; by June, after Mr. Carter's visit, the US was preparing to offer Pyongyang diplomatic recognition.

Serbs in Bosnia carefully keep to an ``acceptable kill ratio.'' During the summer the Bosnian foreign minister complained that unless more than 12 people died at once, no one noticed. In February, 60 people died in the Sarajevo marketplace massacre and NATO leaders were forced by popular opinion to act. In Haiti, paramilitary murder of eight participants in a weekend rally is another the test of the limits .

The weakness in conflict resolution has always been that crimes and evils are ignored in negotiation. The prime virtue is cutting a deal that both parties can live with. Whether this approach makes foreign-policy sense in the long run is an open question. South African Judge Richard Goldstone, United Nations prosecutor of war crimes in Bosnia, finds the amnesty given to Haitian leaders for their own atrocities troubling: ``It doesn't serve justice and it ignores the victims.'' This is not a foreign policy to normalize.

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