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Bush: AWOL on Human Rights?

With three European leaders–Angela Merkel of Germany, Donald Tusk of Poland, and Vaclav Klaus of the Czech Republic–having now announced that they will not attend the Beijing Olympic games to protest China’s treatment of Tibet, Washington’s near total silence is increasingly troubling.

Where, in particular is President Bush? He came out swinging In November of last year, when police shot peacefully protesting monks in Burma, Speaking before the United Nations, he condemned that country’s “19-year reign of fear” while calling for economic sanctions and announcing “an expanded visa ban on those responsible for the most egregious violations of human rights, as well as their family members.”

The George Bush who briefly broke his silence about Tibet last Friday at a joint White House press conference was by contrast feeble. According to the New York Times it was his guest, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd who laid out the case squarely, calling human rights abuses in Tibet “clear-cut,” adding “We need to be upfront and absolutely straight about what is going on.” Bush said only “[T]hat it [was] in his country’s interest that he sit down, again with representatives of the Dalai Lama–not him, but his representatives.”

Those last five words should be noted. Even as Lhasa burns and reports of atrocities continue to find their way out, the administration still is not urging direct talks with the Dalai Lama himself (as the Europeans and others have done), but rather only with “his representatives.” This careful official evasion manifests a United States unwillingness to contradict directly Beijing’s insistent denunciation of the Tibetan leader. (Most recently official Chinese media reported, contrary to fact, that it was the Dalai Lama who was blocking talks.)

This week Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson will be heading for Beijing, to talk economics. But be reassured: he will mention Tibet: “All senior U.S. officials do raise our concerns with respect to Tibet and this trip will be no different,” he said. Paulson’s understatement, and the President’s avoidance of the issue, are products of the administration’s initial assumption that, after a quick and decisive Chinese crackdown, the March unrest in Tibet would prove no more than a bump on the road to the triumphant Beijing Olympics in August. American interest was therefore to stick with China’s government, even if doing so involved some substantial trimming of American values.

That approach is untenable now, as unrest spreads and world indignation grows. How to respond to Chinese oppression of Tibet has become a defining issue. Angela Merkel and her counterparts have firmly taken the lead in doing the right thing. The new question is, when and how will the putative “leader of the free world” follow?



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