From Monday’s New York Times: “With time running out for a Mideast peace accord or a new arms deal with Russia, the outcome of the [China trade] vote has taken on huge importance in the president’s mind. ‘He hates the word, but it’s the legacy thing, in a big way,’ said one Cabinet member.”
Meanwhile, Monday in the Supreme Court of Arkansas: “[Y]ou are hereby notified of the decision of the Arkansas Supreme Court Committee on Professional Conduct to initiate disbarment proceedings against attorney William Jefferson Clinton. This action is being taken against the respondent attorney as a result of … the findings by a majority of the committee that certain of the attorney’s conduct as demonstrated in the complaints constituted serious misconduct in violation of … the Arkansas Model Rules of Professional Conduct.”
Can you hear the rude belly laugh of tragic history repeating itself as farce? A quarter of a century ago Richard Nixon was disbarred by a New York court after resigning as president over the Watergate scandal. Nixon’s defenders, then, argued that his historic breakthrough to China should outweigh his Watergate disgrace. But it didn’t (nor should it have) even though Nixon’s opening to China was a genuine world historic event that he had carefully crafted over several years.
Surely, President Clinton’s stumbling incompetence on behalf of his more narrowly gauged China initiative will not outweigh, nor negate, nor even ameliorate his towering disgrace that is now beginning to come to judgment in the Supreme Court of Arkansas. It is fitting that the state of Arkansas should be taking the first step to vindicate the honor of the presidency so stained by its once-favorite son.
Just as Nixon did, Mr. Clinton is now claiming his China initiative to be his primary legacy. It is only fair, then, to compare the two presidents’ China efforts.
Nixon, having planned his China move years in advance, published an article in Foreign Affairs magazine more than a year before he became president in which he risked undercutting his own partisan political support with the observation: “We simply cannot afford to leave China forever outside the family of nations, there to nurture its fantasies, cherish its hates and threaten its neighbors. There is no place on this small planet for a billion of its potentially most able people to live in angry isolation.”
Mr. Clinton, on the other hand, in the election year 1992, in order to gain partisan advantage even at the price of our national interest, attacked then-President Bush’s effort to engage the Chinese by accusing him of “coddling dictators.” Whether Mr. Clinton was intentionally undercutting his own future China policy or merely had failed even to formulate it yet, we may never know. But, as the New York Times reported: “[Clinton’s] first 18 months in office were spent digging his way out of his own campaign rhetoric. His comments had inflamed the Chinese.”
In 1969, when Nixon saw an opportunity to reach out to China during Soviet-Chinese fighting along the Ussuri River in Siberia, Nixon (in Henry Kissinger’s words) “made two extraordinary decisions.” He put aside America’s historic dispute over Taiwan, and he warned the Soviets that the United States would “not remain indifferent” to a Soviet attack on China.
But in 1995 the ever feckless Mr. Clinton once again undercut his own China policy by allowing Taiwan’s president to make a private visit to this country because he was afraid of the politics of denying the visa. As one of Mr. Clinton’s foreign policy advisers has been quoted observing: “He [Clinton] knows he blew it in 1995.”
Once again in 1970-71, when our invasion of Cambodia had threatened Nixon’s China outreach, he took the bold step of sending Henry Kissinger to carry out secret negotiations with China, which resulted in the historic prize of an accord with China.
But contrast Nixon’s steady and deft hand with Mr. Clinton’s. In April 1999, when Chinese Prime Minister Zhu was in Washington, ready to sign this historic trade bill that had been 13 years in the negotiation, President Clinton once again stuck his finger into the political wind and at the last moment refused to agree to the accord.
“As in so many things,” Democratic Sen. Patrick Moynihan said, “[Clinton] too often let the politics of last month or next month affect decisions toward China that go to half-century strategic issues.”
Mr. Clinton cannot even claim credit for the success of the important vote scheduled later today. He has been carried along by policies conceived by other and better men before him. He has undercut and delayed by years this important trade bill’s passage by his craven and partisan maneuvers. It will be passed into law by the overwhelming vote of his Republican opposition, while his own Democratic party has deserted him. It is to his Arkansas Supreme Court that he should look for the first outlines of his true legacy.