- The Washington Times - Monday, March 13, 2000

Now that we know one of two men will lead America into the future, perhaps both would be good enough to talk to us about the most important dilemma facing the country, which all candidates slithered over or ignored during the primary season.

Dilemma:

The United States is now the most powerful nation in history economically and militarily. Therefore it faces more and different problems, dangers and opportunities than any other nation ever. But its government has not the faintest workable idea about what to do about most of them.

The candidates did deal with important matters, of course, like how little taxes we could pay, how we could get better-educated children in the cities with poorer teachers and rotting schools, and, endlessly, with the trickery and playacting necessary to run a campaign.

There was one brave, stirring moment when Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, had the courage to tell both parties to shed themselves of intolerant never-elected leaders, and named Democratic and Republican specimens. For that the Republican right beat him to a political pulp, successfully avoiding being led by the hottest conservative possibility since Ronald Reagan.

But issues were not brought up that could involve lives and deaths around the world, American included. Such as: Would American policy be designed to help hostile dictatorships wither and die as the Soviet Union did? Or, in the hope that stuffing them with trade and other fruits of free capitalism would somehow reform them, were we simply heightening their ability to confront us in the future?

Did anybody hear any debate about what in heaven's name are we going to do about Saddam Hussein preferably before he finishes the development of his chemical, biological and nuclear weapons to smuggle into our country?

American and allied forces wiped him out in the Gulf war. Then they gave him 15 days to reveal his weapons of mass destruction, and, hilariously, believed he would.

A decade later this latter-day Lazurus has completely wiped out inspection. Countries we solemnly believed were our allies, or at least good chums, rally round him to try to lift the sanctions he imposed on his people by his battle against inspection.

If he ever allows some inspection, how will we be able to know what he did in the year and a half he has banned it? We won't that is the answer of every inspection specialist worth the name.

If the primary candidates had any good ideas they hid them from Saddam and the American public.

Mind you, the American public did not seem to care a hoot, nor did most of the press, print and electronic.

Perhaps everybody was being tender toward the candidates. After all, none of them have been president yet, so let's not bother them with all that headachy foreign affairs stuff now. Sweet.

But they were applicants and wouldn't we all want to know how anybody running for the presidency would handle problems even bigger than attack ads?

I guess not. But it is hard for me to get my mind around the fact that once again we are strengthening dictatorships.

When I was young, we used to say the Japanese were very generous. We sold them torn-down elevated lines for scrap, at good prices, and they gave them back to us free, at Pearl Harbor.

We have not learned that when dictators Japanese, German, Iraqi, Chinese bare their teeth at us, they mean it.

We hear the United States plans to give Syria billions if it signs a treaty with Israel under which it would get back the Golan Heights. Seems to me the Syrian dictatorship should pay America for arranging it. How it seems to the four candidates, who knows?

Of course, we are sorry for the dictators' victims but usually not sorry enough to do anything.

We did not hear from the four candidates still running last week what they thought, when in Sunday church, about Chinese Christians who have been arrested, beaten, tortured, for the crime of worshipping as they believed, and where, not as the Communist Party orders.

Maybe Beijing would ease up on their victims if the four had advocated trade restraints as penalties against Beijing for gross human rights violations. But they all now recoil at the very thought.

On we go. If we let the presidential campaign itself pass without hearing the detailed Bush plan for enforcing the human rights covenants China has signed, or the Gore scenario for eliminating Saddam's arsenal, we will betray tyranny's victims, and our own democratic duty to know.

A.M. Rosenthal is the former executive editor of the New York Times.

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