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Congress stands tall

Congressional leaders have been justifiably criticized for weakness and lack of philosophical direction during this year's bungled budget deliberations. At the same time, though, they haven't received sufficient praise for having set a strong, noble course in two important areas of foreign policy. The Bush administration's consistent disregard of gross human rights violations in China and El Salvador has made a mockery of our government's professed intention to conduct foreign policy in ways that are consistent with our own democratic

values. The blood had hardly dried in Tiananmen Square when President Bush announced his support for continued most-favored-nation trading status for the Chinese government responsible for last year's massacre.

Six murdered and mutilated Jesuit priests had barely been laid to rest in El Salvador when the president announced his opposition to any reduction in military aid to the government that has never managed to conduct a successful prosecution of any of the military officers responsible for such atrocities.

Administration officials seem to have assumed that opposition to their amoral China and El Salva-dor policies would fade away with the passage of time. If so, they have been disappointed _ and perhaps even embarrassed _ this month.

Congress deserves credit for having refused to allow such flagrant human-rights violations to be forgotten in the name of Realpolitik. The House has voted to overturn the president's extension of most-favored-nation status for China. The vote is unlikely to have any immediate impact because of the prospect of a sustainable presidential veto. However, the House also overwhelmingly approved legislation that would prevent any extension beyond next year if conditions in China do not improve markedly in the interim.

The Senate's decision to slash military aid to El Salvador in half has had an immediate impact. Until now, our government has never forced El Salvador's political and military leaders to pay a real price for their misdeeds and failures. The government of President Alfredo Cristiani has yet to prove that it is serious about negotiating peace with leftist rebels, or about prosecuting the soldiers and death squad members who have been responsible for thousands of murders over the course of the country's long civil war. Whether or not it proves to be a catalyst toward peace, the Senate's action serves as the first tangible sign that Washington's uncommon patience with the Salvadoran government is about to snap.

As with the domestic fairness issue, the question of the importance of human rights in the formulation of U.S. foreign policy is a fundamental one. If he insists on clinging to a policy that is selectively blind to other government's human-rights records, Mr. Bush risks conceding another issue to the Democrats _ while sullying our country's reputation as a guardian of democratic values.

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