Today marks the 24th anniversary of China’s Tiananmen Square crackdown and massacre. Chinese actions outraged the world. The Chinese government’s actions were met with widespread disgust in both the United States and Europe, and Bush slapped some sanctions on Beijing—suspending weapons sales for example—the next day.
It was not long before self-described realists in George H.W. Bush’s administration decided to reach out once again to China. Less than a month after the massacres—with martial law still in force—Bush dispatched National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft and Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger to Beijing. Their trip was secret and did not bear fruit. Nevertheless, within just two and a half years, the Bush administration was undoing the last vestiges of its post-Tiananmen posture toward China. Secretary of State James Baker visited quite openly in 1991. Historians can debate whether the elder Bush’s policy was wise, or shortsighted; whether Bush and Baker’s approach was the Beijing Duck to their Chicken Kiev. No doubt China is an important country, and so it cannot simply be ignored.
But what about Syria? As Syrian government forces regain momentum, it is entirely possible that they can defeat—or at least contain—the rebels. In such a situation, should the United States and Europe reach out once again to President Assad’s regime? Should we re-establish normal relations between Washington and Damascus?
The answer to these questions, of course, should be no. Full stop.
The Syrian leader is directly complicit in the worst abuses and gratuitous violence. If the United States is unwilling to undertake regime change—and certainly I oppose putting boots on the ground inside Syria, not that regime change requires such tactics—then it must be willing to uphold complete and unforgiving isolation of rogue governments. Even a secret trip—such as that made by Scowcroft and Eagleburger—takes the heat off the worst offenders. So long as dictators recognize that they can get away with murder—and at worst be pariahs for a limited duration—then they have no incentive to act responsibly. Diplomats may say that it is sophisticated to engage or that it never hurts to talk, but for tens of thousands of freedom-seeking citizens around the world, it can indeed.