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Bush's Human Rights Gap

Unlike his predecessor, this president for the most part has avoided speaking out against abuses in other countries

WHEN Marlin Fitzwater, the White House Press Secretary, observed last month that the Bush administration had "no reason to have any special interest" in Salman Rushdie, he defined with exquisite clarity the human rights policy of the Bush White House. When the State Department announced the same day that no senior administration official would meet with Mr. Rushdie lest the meeting "be misinterpreted," it demonstrated its understanding of the policy.

Forced into hiding because his novel, "The Satanic Verses," led the Iranian government to decree his death, Rushdie may well be the world's best-known human rights victim. But the administration's serenity in the face of Rushdie's plight should come as no surprise. Throughout his presidency, George Bush - in striking contrast to his predecessor Ronald Reagan - has been tone-deaf to human rights claims.

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President Bush has rarely placed human rights at the center of his foreign policy concerns. Occasionally, public reaction has forced him to respond to violations which he initially sought to ignore. Such was the case when Bush abandoned his initial passivity in the face of Iraq's brutal suppression of Kurds and Shiites.

But because Bush has so often chosen to be silent in the face of human rights violations, some of his most troubling positions have eluded the healthy tonic of public scrutiny.

Few outside the professional human rights community and Congress protested his determination, at the outset of his term, to pander to Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, who had amassed a well-known record of atrocities. The main justification for prior United States support had ended in 1988 when the Iran-Iraq war came to a close, but the policy of appeasing Iraq's leader persisted. In fact, that policy remained in effect right up until Iraq invaded Kuwait. Only then did the president discover Saddam's barbari ty.

The policy of downplaying persistent human rights abuses in China has not changed to this day. Three years after the atrocities at Tiananmen Square, the Bush administration continues to appease the Chinese leaders who ordered the brutal crackdown. So, too, with Syria.

Officials have, to be sure, spoken out on human rights. Typically, however, this has only been when the administration has judged that it could pursue those concerns without detracting from others. And the administration's more outspoken positions in favor of human rights have usually been asserted by officials other than the president - by ambassadors in such countries as Honduras and Kenya, for example. Congress, too, has acted as a counterweight to the Bush administration, applying pressure to assure that human rights receive due weight in US policy.

But, with the rarest exception (as when President Bush condemned the Peruvian leader's recent abrogation of democratic safeguards), the president himself has generally stood mute, as if human rights issues were not "serious" - or, to use a word often heard to fall from his lips, as if it were not "prudent" to speak out. And in some situations (the plight of Haitian refugees, for example) the only words from the White House have been negative. So with Rushdie.

The contrast with President Reagan's views and actions are striking. At the outset of his first term, Reagan opposed human rights concerns so noisily that the inevitable backlash forced him to reverse course. Having set out to entomb President Jimmy Carter's human rights policy, the Reagan administration was compelled, as early as October 1981, to proclaim: "Human rights is at the core of our foreign policy."

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Critics charged, with some force, that Reagan was cynically appropriating the rhetoric of human rights to promote a geopolitical agenda. True or not, it scarcely seemed to matter. The prominence given to human rights by Reagan almost invariably helped promote the cause.

In fact, Reagan genuinely seemed to warm up to human rights throughout his time in office; certainly, this president so gifted in rhetoric found the rhetoric of human rights congenial.

To dissidents abroad, it mattered little whether Reagan was motivated by geopolitical reasons or genuine idealism when he proclaimed America's support for democratic aspirations. His words - his rhetoric, if you will - took on an independent life, providing invaluable sustenance.

By his second term, Reagan had played a significant, if sometimes hesitant, role in nudging former dictators from office in Haiti and Chile, as well as the Philippines. The human rights community rightly found much to fault in his implementation of policy, but there is every reason to conclude that Reagan came to believe that the US had a human rights role to play in the world - a leadership role based upon principle. Under Reagan, like Carter, human rights had become a central concern.

An ironic conclusion is inescapable. A president who came to office dedicated to reversing the emphasis on human rights of his predecessor came to articulate human rights concerns with concern and passion. His successor, who spoke often in his campaign speeches of his commitment to a "kinder, gentler" nation, has offered little in leadership with respect to human rights concerns.

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