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America as a beacon

Give President Reagan credit for turning a deft phrase and rousing an audience to America's idealism. He did just that in his nostalgic commencement speech at Notre Dame University when he said that the West would not contain communism. It would "transcend communism." Then followed the kind of words which are bound to touch a responsive chord in patriotic and religious Americans:

"For the West, for America, the time has come to dare to show the world that our civilized ideas, our traditions, our values are not --tarian societies -- a facade of strength. It is time the world knew that our intellectual and spiritual values are rooted in the source of all real strength -- a belief in a Supreme Being, a law higher than our own."

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The words are lofty and the sentiment heartfelt. It will therefore seem puzzling to many that the Reagan administration chooses to avoid strong public advocacy of human rights throughout the world, rights which are so integral a part of America's values. It is a matter of style in part. The President believes that his Democratic predecessor was too militant in his public espousal of rights and that quiet diplomacy can accomplish more. Beyond that, however, Mr. Reagan and his aides distinguish between "totalitarian" regimes that control every facet of citizens' lives and "authoritarian" regimes that are not quite as repressive and are more open to change. Should not we be tougher on our "enemies" than on our "friends"? it is asked.

We, too, think that a softer approach -- a firm but unpublicized pressure behind the scenes -- can often do more than loud rhetoric to secure justice for individuals and alleviate human suffering. Constant public moralizing devalues the coin. But the pendulum now seems to have swung too far. The perception is growing that the Reagan administration is tolerant of right-wing authoritarian governments and unwilling to criticize them in public, and possibly not even in private. The cordial reception of South African Foreign Minister Roelof Botha at the White House, for instance, has many wondering if the United States is no longer committed to encouraging South Africa toward reform and the dismantling of the inhuman system of apartheid. Has the subject been dropped?

The administration's plans to resume military aid to Argentina is another case in point. Secretary of State Haig defends the move on grounds that the US and Argentina have shared values. When pressed by the House Foreign Affairs Committee recently to explain precisely what values he had in mind, Mr. Haig is reported to have replied: "A belief in God." That is hardly reassuring to the thousands of Argentinians who have been brutalized by one of the most oppressive and dictatorial regimes in Latin AMerica. If the strongest democracy in the world does not make known its abhorrence of such egregious violation of human freedom and bring pressure to bear on the Argentine government, what hope is there for nurturing a different course?

It is true, as Secretary Haig says, that there are limits to what the US can do to change other cultures and governments. It cannot impose its morality on others. But when foreign nations turn to the United States for military and economic help is it not valid to ask whether such aid helps perpetuate a brutal suppression of rights which in the long run jeopardizes the US national interest? We think it is. The emphasis in Washington now is on standing up to the Soviet Union and putting human rights questions in an East-West context. But the fundamental fact should not be ignored that, when people are unable to obtain social, economic, and political justice because of oppression from the right, they often turn to the left. This is the danger the US courts in such countries as El Salvador and Guatemala when it fails to press vigorously for genuine change.

It is to be hoped these issues are fully aired in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as it weighs the appointment of Ernest Lefever as assistant secretary of state for human rights and humanitarian affairs. Dr. Lefever makes no bones about using the administration's human rights policy as a cold war weapon more than as a means of fostering democratic freedom and helping reduce oppression wherever it is found. As Senator Tsongas of Massachusetts cogently writes, the White House now is aiming its fire at its adversaries, the nations least amenable to US influence. "If we apply the standards of human rights inconsistently as a tool to further our self-interest," he warns, "we will demean the principle and defeat our own purpose."

Yes, America will "transcend communism." But it will do so through the moral force of its own institutions and the beacon of hope for freedom it holds high for all peoples. It would be a pity if that beacon were allowed to f ade.

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