A FEW WEEKS ago, President Bush traveled to Argentina and announced that "the day of the dictator is over." Although he may also have intended this message to reach the ears of Iraq's Saddam Hussein, the president was careful to limit the scope of his assertion to Latin America.

If he had not, a stickler might point out that the dictator's day is not over for the new friends of the United States in Addis Ababa or Damascus, or for our older friends in Beijing, or for that matter in Riyadh.

The uncomfortable fact is that ever since Iraq invaded Kuwait on Aug. 2, the Bush administration has found a sudden inability to denounce the abuses of a variety of dictators and authoritarian regimes that previously had been the object of Washington's ire. Muting Washington's longstanding criticism of Ethiopia, Syria, China and several other countries has been the price of gaining their participation in the coalition aligned against Saddam in the United Nations, in the trade sanctions now squeezing Baghdad and in the military formations deployed in the desert along the Kuwait border.

Washington's new near-voicelessness has all but stilled what arguably has been the globe's most powerful governmental advocate for human rights for most of the past 16 years. The unwelcome and harmful silence reflects a wider moment of pause, retrenchment and possible endangerment for the cause of human rights as the year closes. It is ironic that such an interval should be at hand.

Last year at this time, proponents of human rights were celebrating. Our cause had triumphed over the communist dictatorships of Eastern Europe. The Berlin Wall was coming down and, in Czechoslovakia, the country's best known human rights activist, Vaclav Havel, was president by acclamation. The consequences were felt in such far-flung and unexpected places as Benin, Mongolia, Nepal and even South Africa, where the release of Nelson Mandela was imminent. These triumphs even seemed to offer the promise that the tragedy of Tiananmen Square would ultimately do little more than check the rise of the democracy movement in China.

Since then, however, much has happened to harm the drive for human rights around the world. Some of the causes for this reversal can be traced -- unexpectedly -- to the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe. Since the Reagan administration, support for human rights had been central to Washington's main international goal: defeating world communism. Now U.S. policymakers must scramble for a new rationale. In addition, it will take a long time to establish liberal, tolerant democratic governments in Eastern Europe. After more than four decades of communist rule that followed Nazi conquest of the region, and with little in the way of a democratic tradition before that, the rebuilding of credible public institutions is a daunting task. Some countries will virtually have to be reinvented. In the difficult times that lie ahead, the experience of East Europe in throwing off dictatorships may not be so inspirational to those in the Third World suffering under tyranny.

It is also plain that the path ahead is even rockier in South Africa. Whatever part the authorities there have played in fostering the violence that has wracked that country in the last several months, ending communal strife is far more difficult than setting it in motion, as shown by the bitter experiences in Northern Ireland, Sri Lanka and many other places. The prospect of a peaceful transition to a unified democratic state respectful of the rights of all in South Africa seems remote after the bloodbath of the past year.

A closer look at the effects of the gulf crisis reveals how readily the world community's foremost governmental proponent of human rights will discard that concern when it conflicts with geopolitical interests. The first example at hand is the dramatic improvement in relations between the United States and Ethiopia. Not so long ago, our government was an outspoken critic of Ethiopia's appalling record on human rights. Only last April, for example, I received a letter from a high State Department official labeling the government of President Mengistu Haile Mariam as the "worst human rights violator in all of Africa." Such denunciations have now stopped. When one thinks of the many other contenders for the distinction of "worst violator" in Africa -- among them Ethiopia's neighbors in the Horn, Sudan and Somalia -- that was a striking assertion. Though a precise ranking of offenders may not be possible, I would not quarrel with that State Department official: Ethiopia is certainly among the worst abusers of human rights anywhere. In its prolonged wars with Eritrean and Tigrayan separatists, the Ethiopian armed forces have repeatedly bombed civilian communities with napalm, phosphorus and, more recently, cluster bombs that shower lethal fragments over a wide area. Ethiopia has forcibly resettled millions of citizens, conscripted 13- and 14-year-old children to fight and, anticipating Saddam Hussein, seized civilian hostages as human shields. Throughout the more than 16 years that Mengistu has ruled since the coup that overthrew Emperor Haile Selassie, he has suppressed all dissent by imprisoning, torturing and executing without trial those suspected of opposing his policies.

The letter I got from the State Department expressed a view reflected in U.S. policy since 1977, when Jimmy Carter became president and downgraded diplomatic relations with Ethiopia and ended all economic and military assistance, citing human rights abuses as a major reason. The Reagan administration similarly denounced Mengistu's abuses of human rights and granted all Ethiopians in the United States the right to remain here because of the persecution they would face if they were required to go home.

Until Aug. 2, the Bush administration pursued the same course. Earlier this year, for example, the administration denounced the bombing of civilians in the port town of Massawa after it was captured by rebels last February. Now, however, relations have improved because Ethiopia has a seat on the U.N. Security Council and its vote is important to the administration in demonstrating a united front against Iraq. Ethiopia's strategic significance is enhanced by its location directly across the Red Sea from Saudi Arabia, and from Yemen -- the only nation other than Cuba that opposed the Security Council resolution authorizing force against Iraq. For its part, Addis is eager to improve relations with the United States because its economy has collapsed and Mengistu's great patron, the Soviet Union, is neither inclined nor able to maintain significant support. (For similar reasons Ethiopia has been eager to improve relations wtih Israel, using emigration by its remaining population of Falasha Jews to Israel as a bargaining chip.)

Ethiopian Foreign Minister Tesfaye Dinka and Secretary of State James A. Baker III recently met in New York and Geneva, the first such high-level contact since Mengistu came to power. The meetings' symbolic significance is matched on a practical level by U.S. failure to use its clout in the World Bank to prevent $431 million in loans to Ethiopia from now being considered.

Mengistu is not alone in benefitting from Iraq's invasion of Kuwait to rehabilitate his standing in Washington. Another pariah, both for his abuses of human rights and because of his government's reputed involvement in international terrorism, was President Hafez al Asad of Syria. No longer. His enmity for Saddam Hussein, whom he has rivaled in cruelty -- the massacre of some 10,000 residents of the beautiful city of Hama in 1982 was only the most notorious of his abuses -- has taken precedence. Now he is courted by the United States and favored with a Bush meeting.

China is yet another beneficiary. Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen met with Baker in Cairo on Nov. 6, and was invited to discuss the gulf crisis with Bush in Washington. As a permanent member of the Security Council with the power to veto its resolutions, China has a strong hand to play in seeing to it that any lingering unpleasantness over the Beijing massacre of June 1989 is forgotten. That was evident in the timing of the invitation for the Washington meeting. It was issued on Nov. 27, just three days after two journalists, Chen Ziming and Wang Juntao, were charged with counterrevolution for their part in the pro-democracy demonstrations of 1989. Their alleged offense is punishable by death. So far, the administration has had nothing to say publicly about the two journalists.

At the same time, the administration has recently taken a useful step on behalf of human rights in China. Richard Schifter, assistant secretary of state for human rights, went to Beijing earlier this month and presented Chinese officials with a list of 150 political prisoners, calling for their release. Yet the value of the effort was diminished by the State Department's refusal to make the list public. In contrast, when the United States was attempting to secure the release of Soviet political prisoners throughout the 1980s, great significance was attached to naming names publicly. By repeatedly citing the names of Andrei Sakharov, Yuri Orlov, Anatole Sharansky and many others, our government -- and Schifter played a part in this effort -- helped make them symbols of the Soviet government's cruelty to its own citizens and elicited pressure on the Soviet Union to release them. Why do less for political prisoners in China? If our government no longer cares to lead in promoting the cause of human rights worldwide, there is a new and important need for those nations which do not have the burden of marshalling votes in the Security Council to speak louder in denouncing the Mengistus, the Asads and the rulers in Beijing. It also requires us to realize we cannot count on our government to promote human rights. It has other interests. But as citizens of the United States, we cannot simply set these interests aside. Our support for the cause of global human rights has never been more important than in the 1990s.

Aryeh Neier is executive director of Human Rights Watch in New York.