Betraying Ourselves

THREE recent actions by the White House present a picture of America overseas that deserves attention. First, going into Haiti to prevent immigration to Florida. Second, threatening sanctions against China to defend a royalty income here after failing to do so in defense of human rights there. Third, and most recently, the White House decision to have President Clinton appear in Moscow in May alongside the authors of the Chechen horror.

These actions by the Clinton administration raise the most disturbing of all questions: What kind of people have we become?

The debate over Mr. Clinton's visit to Moscow was particularly instructive. Those pushing for the trip argued that realism required it; unpleasant things were to be ignored in the name of bigger issues. Objections were characterized as being only about ''appearances'' -- how it might play on TV news to have a US president standing next to those with Chechen blood on their hands.

But that is the wrong way to pose the issue. Deep down it reflects a broad acceptance by officials that cerebral intelligence is enough. That is, all problems can be solved by discussion, and no one need be offended.

In fact, in foreign affairs, as in our personal lives, intelligence is never enough. Moral choice and will count for at least as much, if not more. Unless we can make choices on the basis of our values (which often entails offending those who violate them), and unless we are prepared to back those choices (which takes will and resources), we will demoralize ourselves -- and fail to achieve our goals abroad.

This is true today for three reasons:

* First, the US is an ideological country, based on values of democracy and freedom. These are core interests that ''realists'' now dismiss. But if we dismiss them, we betray ourselves.

* Second, it is a period of rapid change. In this climate, idealism -- a commitment to our principles -- is the highest form of realism. To grab at anything else -- whether a Russian president or US profit -- means we go down with them.

* Third, a failure to speak out and defend these idealistic principles reduces our ability to influence events through moral suasion. Failure to be clear about our values leads others to cross a line we have not drawn; it forces us either to back down or to pay a cost (even militarily) that an earlier principled position would have let us avoid.

Make no mistake: When President Clinton steps onto the Moscow podium with those who are responsible for Chechnya, it will be more than a small step for one man. It will be another disastrous leap for us all.

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