Each year, the U.S. issues a "report card" on how 24 nations are doing in efforts to fight international drug trafficking. Those that flunk because they are not trying very hard may have their aid programs cut.

As a carrot-and-stick approach to the drug problem, the rating system was a good idea. Yet the whole report has become so wrapped up in diplomacy that it loses sight of the realities of dealing with illegal drugs.For example, this year's report "certifies" 18 nations, including Mexico and Colombia, two countries that are major suppliers of heroin, marijuana, and cocaine entering the United States.

Understandably, President Bush is concerned about building strong relations with Mexico, which has a new president, and with other countries that won certification in the report.

But the document, which was sent to Congress this week, also raises questions about how tough the United States will actually be in dealing with countries that don't follow through on their promises.

In addresses to Congress and on other occasions, the president has said get-tough policies against drugs will be a major priority of his administration. Congress has 45 days to reject the president's certification.

Of 18 countries certified as cooperating with the U.S. in international narcotics control, Mexico was among only six whose certification was singled out for explanation. Others included Peru, the Bahamas, Bolivia, Columbia and Paraguay.

Strangely, for the first time the annual report names Burma and Laos as failing to fight the narcotics trade. Both countries have been big suppliers for years and have allowed flagrant violations of drug laws.

Countries not certified in the report as cooperating with the U.S. are Afghanistan, Iran, Panama and Syria. But in each of those cases, the U.S. has either already terminated aid or no financial assistance was at stake.

In the report, Bush told Congress that Mexico had cooperated fully in the battle against narcotics trafficking. The administration's certification of Mexico is undoubtedly tied to efforts to give President Carlos Salinas de Gotari, in office only since last Dec. 1, a chance to get on top of problems there.

But narcotics corruption remains a serious problem in Mexico as it is in many other countries.

Serious questions should be raised about certification of Paraguay, where reports have been raised that the country's new president, Gen. Andres Rodriguez, was himself involved in narcotics trafficking.

At bottom, the report seems to lack any real value. What worth is there to a program that certifies even the worst suppliers of drugs, and flunks only those places that are not getting U.S. aid in any case?