Talk about poor timing. Last week, during President Obama's well-deserved bin Laden anniversary victory lap, he handed Mitt Romney and his Republican friends a pretty good reason to question the incumbent president's competence on foreign affairs.
The issue: The administration's handling of the case of Chen Guangcheng, the human rights activist famous in the People's Republic of China for exposing forced abortions.
Chen's story is worthy of any Hollywood thriller. In late April, he fled the provincial home where he and his family had been under house arrest for 20 months (after serving four years in prison), and, in a shadowy affair, arrived at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. But anxious about his family, he left six days later, and is now with his family in a Beijing hospital, closely watched by the authorities. He says he wants to go to the United States, but the standoff has yet to be resolved.
When it comes to defining core American values, the president is missing an opportunity.
The circumstances of Chen's departure from the embassy are in dispute. There have been reports that threats to his family were passed along by U.S. officials — a charge the Americans deny. But this hasn't stopped Romney from slamming Obama. "If these reports are true, this is a dark day for freedom and it's a day of shame for the Obama administration," he said.
Chen is blind. But the real lack of vision here may lie in the way the president responded to the initial story. This from his news conference last week:
"Obviously, I'm aware of the press reports on the situation in China, but I'm not going to make a statement on the issue." He added: "Not only is that the right thing to do because it comports with our principles and our belief in freedom and human rights, but also because we actually think China will be stronger as it opens up and liberalizes its own system."
If it's the right thing to do, why keep quiet? The administration clearly doesn't want to embarrass China's authoritarian leaders, whose cooperation the multilateralist Obama wants on more important concerns: Iran, Syria, and North Korea, for starters. And Beijing's assistance on these problems has been rather minimal — if not flat-out obstructionist — even before l'affaire Chen leaped onto the front page.
The White House is apparently so anxious to avoid ruffling Beijing's feathers that it can't even admit that it has a role to play here. Get a load of how Press Secretary Jay Carney passed the buck during a recent briefing:
"The State Department — because this is a State Department issue, the nature of it — might have more details for you... for questions about, hypothetically, seeking of political asylum, you would have to go to the State Department. We are not — at the White House, that is not an issue that we handle here. That is a State Department issue."
Funny, but last time I checked, the Secretary of State works for, and carries out the policies of, the president of the United States. Carney wasn't even able to say if Secretary Clinton and President Obama had communicated about the Chen matter.
Meantime, there's another issue in play here: Economics, which may be limiting American options. China is America's largest creditor. The U.S. is $15 trillion in the hole and borrows 40 cents for every dollar it spends. This isn't exactly what you call leverage; America can't afford — literally — to squawk too much.
But the White House pushes back on all this, claiming that the president squawks plenty on human rights — albeit in private. They describe his comments made to visiting Chinese officials as "sharp" and "direct." Just not sharp enough or direct enough, it seems, to affect actual changes in Chinese policy.
Not that the president's behind-closed-doors approach lacks merit. After all, the cold-hearted argument goes, what's the fate of one man and his family relative to preventing war with Iran? Or making sure that nuclear-armed North Korea doesn't implode? Still, the issue of human rights is important in and of itself. What we say about it, its importance in our value system, and how we communicate those values to the world is of tremendous long-term importance — especially within the broader context of Obama's efforts to repair America's tarnished image.
The president also doesn't want to be seen as meddling. But we had no choice in the Chen case — he came to us. A few weeks ago, so did a Chinese police chief from Chongqing who was fed up with corruption in his city. Why do high-profile Chinese whistle blowers and human rights activists run to the nearest U.S. Embassy? Because they see us as a guarantor for what they don't have: Basic human rights. So let the Chinese accuse us of meddling in their internal affairs — these people came to us.
Even so, when it comes to defining core American values, the president is missing an opportunity. Even Jimmy Carter — derided today as one of the weakest presidents ever — spoke out loudly and frequently about human rights. Does Barack Obama want to come off as weaker than Jimmy Carter?
But Romney had better be careful with his "Obama is weak" argument. Even as he was trashing the president's handling of the Chen saga, he was, if you can believe this, also denigrating the bin Laden raid. Anyone would have given the order, Romney said. Anyone but Romney himself, who once opposed the intense and expensive hunt that led to the Abbottabad raid.