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ITEM: AS THE Reagan Administration's "constructive engagement" policy continues to crumble, conservatives are now scrambling to find a way to justify their clear lack of moral resolve on U.S. policy on South Africa. The latest alternative to sanctions, if a major article in the current issue of The National Interest and stirrings elsewhere on the neo-con front are any indication, is disengagement. This policy, according to author Robert B. Shepard, would proclaim total neutrality and would recognize whatever government remains in power after any expected uprising.
Item: Though the White House yesterday finally called on Ferdinand Marcos to step down, the Reagan Administration waffled for weeks while Corazon Aquino, the most inspiring "freedom fighter" in recent memory, was cheated out of the Philippine presidency by the Marcos's sleazy shenanigans. The presidential hemming and hawing on the Philippine election, which Aquino correctly called a contest between good and evil, came during a new Administration initiative to funnel aid to two dubious movements: the Contras in Nicaragua and Jonas Savimbi's South Africa-backed rebels in Angola.
Item: U.S. fear at alienating its NATO allies may cause Reagan to reject a promising Soviet offer to eliminate intermediate-range nuclear missiles from Europe. The proposal, which will probably be ignored, was made more enticing after Mikhail Gorbachev recently told a visiting Sen. Edward M. Kennedy '54 that a European-arena agreement would not be tied to Star Wars.
THESE THREE DEVELOPMENTS may not initially have much in common, but they are emblematic of an ongoing conservative abdication of moral responsibility in the international arena.
The move towards a new form of Right Isolationism has its roots in Cap Weinberger's now-famous "happy wars" doctrine, in which the defense secretary advocated no U.S. military intervention except where victory and popular domestic support were largely ensured.
Reagan's foreign policy, crowned by the oh-so-titanic invasion of Grenada, has shown that behind the proud talk of freedom fighters and strong anti-communism lies a foreign policy that fails to follow through even on the most basic promises of its rhetoric.
This will come as no surprise to longtime Reagan-haters, but it is worth noting in light of the increasing divergence between the Reagan Administration's continuing push for more defense spending and its increasing unwillingness to fight for the supposedly sacred values of democracy and freedom around the world.
The United States' failure to support unequivocally the Black activists in South Africa and the Aquino movement in the Philippines represent more than final proof of the Reagan Administration's cynical approach to international politics--we knew about that already. The lack of action marks a fundamental failure of nerve. Instead of standing tall, the United States now stands for nothing at all.
THE LACK OF Republican resolve offers a rare opportunity to Democrats who are casting about, so far unsuccessfully, for a response to the Reagan Administration. Democrats have generally allowed Republicans to frame the political debate in terms of defense spending, which is very different--and the difference is often lost--from foreign policy. Because Democrats want less spending, they are perceived as isolationists--soft on communism, unwilling to fight the Sandinista threat in Nicaragua, etc., etc.
In fact, Democrats can now make a compelling case for a new internationalism based on a firm committment to democratic values that replaces militant rhetoric with reasoned action.
In the instances mentioned above, Democrats have already argued for sanctions directed at South Africa, strong support for Aquino, and arms negotiations. But they have allowed their arguments to be misinterpreted as signs of Democratic weakness. These stands should, however, be argued from a position of strength--if the Reagan Adminstration is unwilling to act on behalf of democracy abroad, then the Democrats will.
In South Africa, sanctions and corporate disinvestment should be presented as ways for the United States to show its support for the disenfranchised majority--Democratic strength over Republican ambivalence.
In the Philippines, yesterday's events may render any further U.S. action irrelevant. But the Democrats may still have a chance to show resolve by pushing for diplomatic and possibly military support for the democratic opposition.
In the ongoing arms control stalemate, Democrats should criticize Reagan's failure to respond to Soviet Euromissile initiatives as evidence that he is prisoner to the needs of European allies, who supposedly should be following the U.S.'s lead and not vice-versa.
Of course, conservative isolationism is matched in many respects by a liberal and, even more odd, by neo-liberal isolationism (call to mind Sen. Gary W. Hart's presidential campaign) that has destroyed the Democrats' ability to counter Republican foreign policy with any measure of credibility.
The Democrats now have an opportunity to fill a moral void left by President Reagan. Let's hope they don't blow it again.
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