“Overall, in 1995, the [Chinese] authorities stepped up repression of dissent.”

So speaks the State Department of the United States in the solemn official voice of the most recent of its annual country-by-country reports on human rights practices. The meager deposit of the State Department’s human rights conscience has been consigned to the custody of Assistant Secretary John Shattuck. Anyone whose attention to that subject wanders too insistently from the passive into the active is apt to be a lonely voice in the world around him. Shattuck is so far from an exception as to be the loneliest of voices in his own State Department. But then even the Secretary of State’s voice is lonely, too. The image of an American foreign policy establishment as unified and disciplined instrument is an academic fantasy.

The powers that used to reside in the Secretary of State are now diffused among independent principalities, each free to exercise command over its chosen geographical sphere according to its perception of its own political and commercial interests. The State Department portfolio for China and India has, for example, been consigned to Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown, who summed up his contempt for Shattuck’s lively conscience with the view that to complain when trading partners abuse their citizens is just a “feel-good” policy, clearly useless and impliedly mischievous.

When President Clinton chose to treat as fact the fiction that Mexico has made a genuine effort to contain its drug traffickers, he turned over State’s Mexican desk to the bankers who bought it with their $20-billion peso bailout package.

Shattuck’s canvassing eye lights up with severities especially manful when he casts it upon the atrocious practices common in the governance of Turkey, which continues to pursue the harassments that have displaced some two million Kurds from villages often left burning behind them. The writ of Shattuck’s protests does not, of course, run to our actual relations with Turkey, which, Human Rights Watch duly notes, are currently managed by a curious bipartisan coalition of Texas congressmen and Bell Textron to push through the $175-million sale to the Turks of ten of the Cobra helicopters that are their preferred negotiating tool with the Kurds.

Title to the State Department’s Cuban desk has now been jointly allotted to Senator Jesse Helms and to that émigré enragé Jorge Mas Canosa, who was cunningly brash enough to warn the administration in public that if he were denied his “share of custody” he would take his vengeance at the polls.

But then we are in the season when the State Department’s diminishing authority must be further leaked away for disposal on behalf of a presidential campaign. Terrorism, for example, can no longer be treated as subject to even-handed reproach whether or not it might fit the tastes of some constituency. It would take capacities for moral distinction more delicate than my own to think that anyone who blows up the occupants of a bus is worthier of respect if he does it in London rather than in Jerusalem.

Disclaimers of personal responsibility are as far as Gerry Adams has yet cared to go whenever the IRA, his Sinn Fein’s ally, has mounted another demonstration of depraved indifference to unoffending lives. The worst of hypocrites is he who can only be trusted to deplore the tragedy and never to condemn his comrade, the criminal. And yet, with all that taint upon him, Adams comes among us as our guest once more, although the embarrassments of too much blood too recently spilled have silenced the official trumpets that blew loud on his first visit. Since welcoming Adams to the White House seemed impolitic at this juncture, the State Department’s portfolio for Ireland has been temporarily committed to Christopher Dodd, the senator from Connecticut and, not to any extent incidentally, Chairman of the Democratic Party.

We insult the great body of Irish-Americans when we conceive of the murder of innocents as suiting their fancy. Yet our politicians think to profit from that unlovely assumption; and our foreign policy is made the property of campaigners who hope to win, bankers who hope to collect, and contractors who hope to sell until the assistant secretary for human rights can no longer hope to be heard.

Copyright © 1996 Newsday, Inc.

This Issue

April 18, 1996