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President Bush keeps saying that our battle against terrorism is a fight for freedom. He's certainly right that we're fighting for our own liberty. But how seriously do we take freedom for everybody else?

If you look at the nations with which we've allied ourselves, you begin to wonder. In recent days, the president has been eager to strengthen our relationship with China. He didn't say he wanted to find out if Chinese President Jiang Zemin was trustworthy. Bush laid the burden on himself, saying he wanted Jiang to "look me in the eye, take measure of the American president . . . so he can see that I'm a sincere person when I say that I want to have good relations."

Perhaps I'm missing some subtleties in the ways of Sino-American communication, but I don't think an American president speaking of a dictator has to vouch for his own sincerity. In the meantime, Chinese human rights cases are allowed to remain unresolved, which means that individual dissenters remain unjustly in prison. Bush's aides insisted to reporters that he raised human rights issues in private with Jiang. You have to hope so.

Our putative allies include Saudi Arabia, which wants to do as little as possible for us publicly and whose repressive monarchy respects neither religious nor political freedom, let alone gender equality. Pakistan - which, like Saudi Arabia, supported the Taliban in the past - is governed by a military dictatorship. President Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan has jailed thousands of political prisoners.

Like Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt before him, Bush is justified in seeking help from unsavory governments. But the United States also has obligations to honesty and to our own claims of representing democracy and freedom in the world. At the very least, we should never pretend that countries with repressive governments are "free" just because they're standing with us in this war.

And if we claim that this is a war for freedom in the broad sense, we have to consider how a shortage of freedom in the world helped create the conditions for our current fix. This, in turn, means that a concern for human rights must be part of our strategy.

For the United States to speak out in favor of human rights is seen by some as a form of "cultural imperialism," an effort to impose "Western" ideas on non-Western nations. Foreign policy tough guys mistrust human rights, too. National interest alone, they say, should guide our policy. Wooly-headed talk about human rights can lead only to disappointment or, worse, to bad policies. The notion that human rights can be discounted as a "Western" idea surely makes no sense to those languishing in prisons because of their political views or religious beliefs.

And it is the tough guys who are wooly-headed in seeing no link between human rights and an effective foreign policy. The United States faces terrible choices in dealing with allies in part because citizens in the Middle East and Central Asia face only bad options. Democratic alternatives are rarely available. Frustrated citizens can rebel against apparently pro-Western dictatorships, only to see them replaced with new dictatorships, sometimes of an Islamic sort.

The United States tends to stick with one set of dictators because we fear the other crowd will be worse. Our past experiences with Iran and Nicaragua suggest this is not an ideal circumstance.

Of course, the United States can't remake every society on Earth. But to argue that we have no national interest in the spread of democratic values is to lack realism. We are now committed to building a new Afghanistan precisely because we know that the fracturing of government there helped create the Taliban and that only an effective and more representative regime can create durable social peace.

The events of Sept. 11 unmasked the instability that reigns across much of our planet. In the short run, we need to do what we can to contain the terrorism this instability breeds. But if we really seek long-term solutions, then expanding democracy's reach will become a central purpose of our foreign policy. This task is not a luxury, it's an imperative.

Washington Post Writers Group

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