Some of Our Best Friends Are Authoritarians

by Patricia Derian, June 7, 2004 (November 7, 1981 issue)


The Reagan Administration has made faint efforts to fake an attitude toward human rights; it has made no effort to implement a policy. Let's look at the record.

§ U.S. representative to the United Nations Jeane Kirkpatrick put forth the theory that authoritarianism is better than totalitarianism. Irving Kristol and other neoconservatives were quick to rally behind this construct. Kirkpatrick claimed that in some places, notably Latin America, the people were not ready for democracy and that authoritarian governments were therefore an understandable, if regrettable, development. Despite right-wing efforts to resuscitate it, the authoritarian-totalitarian dichotomy has, blessedly, been laid to rest. The outrage generated by the description of torture and anti-Semitism in Argentina in Jacobo Timerman's Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number and the Polish workers' courageous struggle for economic and human rights in a "totalitarian" country showed how false the distinction was.

§ In his mid-January confirmation hearings before the Senate, Secretary of State Alexander Haig responded to a question about his position on the U.S. law prohibiting military and economic assistance to governments that violate human rights by saying, "In general, I support this provision of the Foreign Assistance Act. I do not believe we should, other than in the most exceptional circumstances, provide aid to any country which consistently and in the harshest manner violates the rights of its citizens. " But even before the transcripts of that hearing were released, Administration officials were lobbying members of Congress to repeal legislation prohibiting military assistance to Argentina, where the ruling junta and its supporters are responsible for the murders of countless citizens. This same government routinely confiscates property, detains people in prison without pressing charges and practices torture, and it has been charged by human-rights groups with causing the disappearance of approximately 15,000 Argentines.
§ At a late January press conference, Haig said, "International terrorism will take the place of human rights [in] our concern, because it is the ultimate abuse of human rights." At the time Haig made that statement, the United States was continuing its attempt to extradite the terrorists it believes participated, with the approval of the Chilean government, in the Washington, D.C., assassinations of Orlando Letelier, a former minister in Salvador Allende's government, and Ronnie Moffitt, an American citizen and an associate of Letelier's at the Institute for Policy Studies. Immediately after Ronald Reagan's inauguration, the extradition efforts were abandoned, and Chile began to feel the warm sun of American friendship. Chile took part in the annual U.S.-South American naval exercise this year, the ban on Export-Import Bank loans to Chile was lifted, and U.S. representatives to international banks were ordered to support loans to Chile. In addition, Kirkpatrick recently visited August0 Pinochet, Chile's president. So much for Chilean terrorism. Then, the Reagan Administration, after declaring the Soviet Union to be the greatest supporter of terrorism in the world, abandoned the wheat embargo imposed by Jimmy Carter in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and negotiated new grain sales with the U.S.S.R. No further policy to combat Soviet-supported terrorism has been proposed.

§ On April 30, The New York Times quoted President Reagan as having said that "even at the negotiating table, never shall it be forgotten for a moment that wherever it is taking place in the world, the persecution of people for whatever reason...persecution of people for their religious belief...that is a matter to be on that negotiating table or the United States does not belong at that table." In the same edition of The Times, a front-page story reported that "after the speech, a White House spokesman said Mr. Reagan had not meant to alter his policy of playing down the rights issue in foreign relations."

§ The President nominated Ernest Lefever to be Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs. Lefever's publicly stated views on the subject were (a) that all legislation making foreign aid conditional on a nation's observance of human rights should be repealed and (b) that human rights had no place in U.S. foreign policy. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee, with a Republican majority, handed the President his first important defeat by voting 13 to 4 to reject the nomination. Lefever's name was withdrawn even though he modified his views during the confirmation hearings, and no one else has been named to fill the position. (Lefever is now a consultant to the State Department.)

§ Soon after he took office, President Reagan said he thought that South Africa's government was making a good-faith effort to improve its treatment of blacks. Apparently through the error of an inexperienced consular officer, the chief of South Africa's military intelligence and three of his colleagues were granted visas to enter the United States, even though the South African military is barred from this country by law. When their presence here became known, the State Department said that the South Africans had not been received by any U.S. officials. But they were received by Kirkpatrick, whose staff said she had not known who the visitors were, and by a U.S. military intelligence officer, who was described as "an old friend.'' In October, several South African police officials were allowed to enter the United States to attend an international police conference, and it is rumored that Prime Minister P.W. Botha may soon pay a state visit.

§ The Administration has shown itself to be extremely hospitable to dictators and human-rights abusers. President Chun Doo Hwan, the strongman who ended South Korea's hopes for democracy, was welcomed by Reagan in February. And President Roberto Eduardo Viola of Argentina--elected in 1980 by the three members of Argentina's military junta--was warmly received when he visited Washington in March. Vice President George Bush fawned on President Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, pronouncing him a champion of democracy in his remarks last June at Marcos's inauguration for another six-year term.

§ The Administration has so far evaded the human-rights provisions of the International Financial Institutions Act of 1977. By way of explaining its support for loans to South Korea, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay, the Administration has claimed that "there have been significant improvements in the human rights situations in these countries...the Department has...determined that they do not now fall within the standard that would require a 'no' vote or abstention on loans not serving basic human needs."

While some members of the Administration maintain that the defeat of Carter was a direct repudiation of his human-rights policy, others argue that little has changed since the Carter Presidency. Actually, U.S. human-rights policy was not an issue in the election and so was not "repudiated." But it is also false to say that a reversal of the Carter Administration's policies on human rights has not taken place.

The Reagan Administration's intentions are evident in its warm embrace of dictators and its efforts to eliminate Congressional human-rights reports and to restore and increase aid to repressive governments. Reagan is banking on his ability to keep the public's attention focused on domestic--particularly economic--matters. He is also counting on a post-Iran eagerness to turn away from foreign affairs.

Reagan has made foreign affairs relatively simple. The Soviet menace is so overwhelming and the United States is so weak that we must blindly embrace all anti-Communist governments in order to defend liberty, justice and democracy.

The message to the world is clear: the United States is not serious about human rights. Although it will continue to mouth pieties, this country will not act on behalf of human rights.

But the Administration has been challenged. Democrat Don Bonker, chairman of the House Human Rights and International Organizations Subcommittee, and a handful of others in Congress have repeatedly urged Reagan not to abandon the U.S. commitment to human rights. Senator Christopher Dodd, Democrat of Connecticut, who recently visited El Salvador to discuss U.S. military aid, succeeded in making such aid contingent on peace negotiations and an improvement of the Salvadoran record on human rights. Though the Argentine regime is being courted by the U.S. military, arms sales and economic aid are contingent on improvements in the human-rights situation there. The policy is having some effect. The most recent U.S. general to call on the Argentines was reported to have carried a list of conditions for arms sales, including moves toward a democratic government and progress on human rights.

It is likely that even before Reagan's bid for the Presidency, some of his industrialist friends had complained to him of the losses American business had suffered because of human-rights restrictions. They may have convinced Reagan that those off-limits governments with which they wanted to do business had had just provocation for their repressive actions.

Given his preoccupation with the supposed Soviet threat, U.S. business interests abroad and propping up anti-communist governments, a man who thinks only that the Russians are dangerous, China is big and Africa black (except for the little white tip) will inevitably come up with a disastrous human-rights policy.

I find it difficult to imagine that this can continue for three more years or that the American people will stand for it. Our allies are frightened and may desert us. Our enemies, we can only hope, will not figure out the extent of our disarray before we get back on track. I am far less worried about regaining military superiority over the Soviet Union than I am about a United States that has not been able or willing to develop a foreign policy, and that now has a President who does not care.

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