Chechnya could become the graveyard of America's moral reputation. Ever since its birth, America, more than anything else, has stood for freedom and human rights. The world knew that even if unable to help directly, America at least was sympathetic to the cause of others' freedom. Tibetans, Kurds and others sense that today, just as Hungarians, Poles and others knew it yesterday. That is what made America, in the eyes of the world's oppressed, the land of liberty. It had precious little to do with America's willingness or ability to become engaged in the struggle against oppression as such. It had everything to do with the sense of identification -- with the feeling of a shared cause.

Yet today, when helpless Chechens are being blasted to smithereens because they dared to reach out for independence, America is not only indifferent but its official spokesmen have joined the oppressors in actually vilifying the victims and justifying the oppression. This has never happened before, in the entire history of this country. This is not only wrong, but unwise even from a Realpolitik point of view.

Two weeks ago The Post reported a briefing by a senior State Department official (one can only guess who it was) in which the Chechens were portrayed almost in racist terms as troublemakers and as the villains of the unfolding tragedy. Their leader, Gen. Dzhokhar Dudayev, who has put his life on the line, was personally maligned by the anonymous briefer. Yet Dudayev is the man who Estonians gratefully recall commanded the Soviet Air Force in Tallinn in the final months of the Soviet Union -- and refused to join in the suppression of the national movement for Estonia's independence before returning to his homeland. The line out of the State Department and the White House has basically corresponded to the official Russian version. According to it, at stake is law and order, which needs to be restored, and the preservation of Russia. No reference to the failed Russian efforts to destabilize Chechnya through hired thugs and disguised Russian mercenaries; no mention of the tragic history of the Chechens, of their prolonged struggle for independence and of their Kremlin-mandated near-genocide 50 years ago. Similarly, no admission that perhaps some of their complaints might have some moral or historical legitimacy.

The vicious vilification of the Chechens has been buttressed by a legitimization of the use of force that is similarly wrongheaded and distorted. Both the administration and the Kremlin officials addressing Americans have drawn analogies to the American Civil War. (The State Department briefing of Jan. 3 made that point explicitly.) Yet that ridiculous comparison overlooks a fundamental difference. Northern Americans fought southern Americans in the Civil War; but it is not northern Russians who are fighting southern Russians in Chechnya. Chechens are not Russian and do not wish to be Russian, to put it mildly. They are a conquered people, ethnically and religiously different from the Russians.

If an analogy is needed to put Chechnya in the American context, then it is not the American Civil War that is helpful to our understanding but the case of Puerto Rico. A society similarly on the territorial fringe of the United States, culturally and historically distinctive, Puerto Rico was given the choice of statehood, independence, or commonwealth -- and it exercised that choice in a free vote. Might that example not offer a more civilized solution for the dilemmas posed by Chechnya than the heavy bombing of its capital and the mass killings of its people? The failure to make some of these points -- while also urging Moscow to exercise patience and to focus on negotiations -- is not only morally reprehensible, it is not even good foreign policy. One might suspect that the administration thinks it is being realistic in supporting Boris Yeltsin in Chechnya. But it surely is in the American interest to identify itself with the democratic forces in Russia today, which overwhelmingly condemn the military action -- just as the United States did in the recent past when it supported Andrei Sakharov against Leonid Brezhnev on human rights and when it sympathized with Yeltsin's repudiation of Mikhail Gorbachev's use of force against the freedom-seeking Lithuanians. There is shameful irony in a situation in which the United States is backing a Russian policy that is most strongly endorsed by Vladimir Zhirinovsky.

The true friends of Russia are not those in the administration who shed crocodile tears over Moscow's allegedly painful dilemmas regarding Chechnya. The true friends are the ones who are willing to support the people in Russia who speak out against brutality that can be neither hidden nor justified -- and that augurs badly for the future of democracy in Russia. American-Russian relations would not have been hurt if the administration had simply stated that while in a formal sense Chechnya may be an internal issue of the Russian Federation, how Russia conducts itself is a matter of true concern to the global community of democratic states.

To their credit, America's European friends have not hesitated to speak up. The Swedish foreign minister said simply: "What is now happening in Chechnya is unacceptable." The German foreign minister, among others, similarly deplored the disproportionate excess of the Russian action, while Chancellor Helmut Kohl's foreign policy expert condemned Russia's abuse of human rights in Chechnya and warned that Russia could wreck its relations with the West. Even vulnerable Ukraine went on record in expressing concern.

The administration shames America by not speaking up.

The writer was President Jimmy Carter's national security adviser.