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If Vice President Gore violated some Amy Vanderbilt rule about being a good guest by speaking out in Malaysia last week, it was far less of an abuse than that inflicted on citizens there by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.

Mahathir and some other leaders at the Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting remain outraged that Gore used the forum to highlight Malaysia's human-rights abuses and Mahathir's jailing of political rival Anwar Ibrihim.

It seems they expected Gore to smile and talk only about economics while the democratic foundation that makes economic prosperity possible gets subverted. The vice president -- filling in while President Clinton kept an eye on Iraq -- was right not to play that game.

Mahathir's economic prescription -- currency controls -- is at odds with U.S. policy on how best to end the economic crisis that brought Asian leaders together. But his political prescription for dealing with the unrest -- to fire and then arrest a popular political rival -- was even more repugnant.

If the United States is to have any credibility as a leading voice of democracy, it cannot muffle that voice whenever others would prefer to talk only about economics. Behind-the-scenes diplomacy often can be effective in pushing human rights. But there also is a role for the public bully-pulpit and for holding nations -- even friendly ones -- up to the international spotlight.

Leaders typically use gatherings like the APEC forum to burnish their images in front of the home folks and strengthen their grip on power.

Gore's straight talk sends a much-needed message to other would-be despots: If they want the prestige of hosting such a forum, they had better have their human-rights houses in order. Otherwise, they risk the same international embarrassment that Malaysia is now trying to recover from.

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