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Grasping the nettle of values and interests in foreign policy

IN the abstract, international diplomacy looks easy. With America's values as their guiding light, armchair strategists can see clearly which path in the maze to follow. But specific names get attached to situations, and the way becomes confused.

For example: Suppose Country A is occupying territory under a claim that has been subject to international criticism, and that Country A is suffering repeated casualties at the hands of guerrillas with a proclaimed goal of independence for the territory. The guerrillas make their base in refugee camps and so, when Country A decides that retaliation is necessary, it must bring its weapons of war -- far more powerful, of course, than those of the guerrilla force -- into the refugee camps.

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Civilian deaths and additional misery for the survivors are a byproduct of Country A's attempts, always only partially successful, to wipe out the guerrilla force.

On whose side should the United States place its reputation, moral support, and/or material support? That of the beleaguered guerrillas whose stated aim is the independence of their historical homeland -- or that of Country A, which claims self-defense and can point to real gains made by natives of the disputed area who have accepted their jurisdiction?

Even in the abstract, the question is thorny. If Country A is identified as Israel, factors both emotional and political come into play. If Country A is identified as Vietnam, a new set of emotional and political considerations comes to bear.

Rather than US values being the sole criteria for decision, US interests are added to the equation. In the Mideast, Israel's support of US policies, its recently revealed airlift of Ethiopian Jews, and the emotional pull of the homeland of Judaism and the birthplace of Christianity all led the US to ``regret'' -- but not condemn -- the loss of lives incident to a retaliatory attack on a PLO-infested refugee camp. Here, Country A is a clear favorite over the guerrillas.

Israel's quickness to respond, to demand an eye for an eye, wins quiet admiration from many Americans tired of watching the US endure abuses from terrorist groups. The fact that the PLO is held in low regard solidifies support for Israel's actions.

In Southeast Asia there are different memories, different ties. We will be a long time forgetting, or forgiving, communist Vietnam for the fact that it did, finally, prevail. Its occupation of Cambodia reinforced some of the very fears that had led to our deep involvement in Vietnam in the first place.

Yet, the Cambodia that Vietnam conquered was a country so terrorized by its own government that then Sen. George McGovern had called for the use of force to displace Pol Pot and the other Cambodian rulers. By the time Vietnam took control, Pol Pot's regime had accounted for about 2 million Cambodian deaths out of a population of 8 million.

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The guerrillas that the Vietnamese are attempting to eradicate are, in fact, an unlikely coalition of three groups, banded together by their common cause against their Vietnamese conqueror. Pol Pot's murderous Khmer Rouge forces are allied with guerrillas loyal to the one-time ruler and ultimately pragmatic Prince Sihanouk and a group that is anti-communist.

It is a partnership with an expected half-life measured in days should the Vietnamese ever leave. A betting man would put his money on Pol Pot to emerge victorious from the inevitable clash, since he has already proved he is ruthless enough to engage in national self-genocide.

Yet, we officially condemn Vietnam's (Country A in our example) actions against the Cambodian guerrillas in the refugee camps along the Thai-Cambodian border -- even when we hold no affection for the guerrillas. In fact, Pol Pot's is still the government recognized by the US.

Our values and interests may coincide, but all too often they collide or, at least, don't appear to overlap. The goal of diplomacy must be to choose the path that seems the least objectionable.

Patrick L. Townsend, a retired marine, is a free-lance writer.

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