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.
Paul M. Weyrich is chairman and chief executive officer of the Free Congress Foundation.