Last week President Bush attended the opening of the Olympics in Beijing, China,
the first American president to attend outside his own country.
Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain said he
would not have attended the opening ceremonies if he were president.
Presumptive Democratic nominee Sen. Barack Obama said he and Mr. McCain
were in agreement on the issue. He would not have attended either.
So what should Mr. Bush have done? Should he be there?
As I see it, the president had three choices. He could have
boycotted the Olympics, a la Jimmy Carter on Moscow in 1980. He could
have gone and said nothing. Despite the view of the majority of heads
of state now in Beijing for the Games that China's record in Burma and
Tibet is unacceptable, they say nothing. The most common comment we
heard was, "We don't want to mix politics with the Games." The final
option was to do what Mr. Bush did. He could make a definitive
statement on human rights while attending the Olympics.
I think the president did the right thing. Had he boycotted the
Olympics, it would have had little effect on the Olympics but it might
have been devastating to our athletes. Had he gone to Beijing and said
nothing, not only would it have been inconsistent with the president's
long record on human rights and freedoms, but the people of Burma and
Tibet and the victims of China's one-child policy would have felt
abandoned, perhaps even betrayed.
Instead, President Bush went to Thailand and hit China hard on its
repression of religion, of freedom of the press, of freedom of assembly
and, of course, its forced abortions. True, many people will have heard
nothing of Mr. Bush's remarks. But in this age of satellites and the
Internet, word will get out.
When I was active in the former Soviet Union, dissident Russians
told me how excited and encouraged they were when President Reagan
declared they were part of an evil empire. It gave them hope and
courage to soldier on. The same will be true of Mr. Bush's tough stance
before landing at Beijing.
Of course, China's reaction was to be expected. The Chinese
government told Mr. Bush not to meddle in its internal affairs. Mr.
Bush promised to raise these issues privately with China's leaders
after the opening of the Olympic Games.
At first I was inclined to think Sens. Obama and McCain were correct. But having seen what Mr. Bush did, I changed my mind.
Dealing with human rights questions is a tricky matter. The United
States can have only limited influence in other nations. Yet if we do
not hold China to a higher standard, who will? The real lasting
influence we have had in the world has not been nation-building. Our
efforts there may have the opposite effect. We have had the greatest
influence on those occasions in which we were a moral leader. We
provided an excellent example to other governments and provided hope
for people suffering under tyranny. It is amazing how moral leadership
has such a dramatic effect on other nations. But when we try to be the
world's policeman we end up creating anger and bitterness.
If Mr. Bush had done what he promised in 2000 - that is, no
nation-building - he would go down in history as perhaps the greatest
president since George Washington. As it is, he will be judged on the
outcome of two wars, and that outcome is mostly out of his control.