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Jewish World Review / July 7, 1998 / 13 Tamuz, 5758

Paul Greenberg

Paul Greenberg The new Detente

BILL CLINTON SEEMS DETERMINED to outdo Richard Nixon at every turn. Last week it was at speaking flattery to power.

Not even Nixon-Kissinger at the height, or rather depth, of their Detente with the Soviet Union ever actually endorsed Leonid Brezhnev as the visionary leader who was going to guide Russia to freedom. Everyone would have laughed, or at least everyone beyond the reach of the Soviet penal code.

Well, maybe Bubba did
learn something in China.
How things have changed, and not necessarily for the better. Last week an American president laid the fatuous praise on not with a trowel but a shovel -- an earthmover. Before departing Communist China, our president described its current dictator as a leader of "imagination," a statesman of "extraordinary intellect" and "very high energy."

But all that was just the beginning of William Jefferson Clinton's encomiums to the tyrant. Comrade Jiang is also following the "morally right" course for his country. What's more, and "profoundly important at this moment in our history when there is so much change going on, he has a good imagination -- he has vision."

The president's praise could have come straight out of a profile of the Hero of Tiananmen Square in some fully authorized biography. Bill Clinton sounded not just polite but eager to endorse the tyrant and call his rule reform: "And what I would like to see is the present government, headed by this president and this premier, who are clearly committed to reform, ride the wave of change and take China fully into the 21st Century and basically dismantle the resistance to it. I believe they are." Yes, these are ni-i-ice Communists. The most impressive, and frightening, aspect of such endorsements is not that Bill Clinton would say such things -- he long ago stopped complaining about George Bush's coddling dictators -- but that nobody laughs.

On the contrary, Americans are expected to applaud when our president grovels. And we do. Just look at the polls. And the Happy Faces on teevee. The president's tour of China is being hailed as a great success, and indeed it may prove the most noteworthy achievement of American diplomacy since Yalta.

My explanation for all this drivel is a simple one: Bill Clinton has heard too many nominating speeches at national conventions. How else explain why an American president would go on so long and so enthusiastically about the virtues of a nonentity?

But there he was, Richard Milhous Clinton, seeing vision and imagination in one more faceless face thrown up by a fading gerontocracy. A certain amount of sycophancy is always expected on these occasions, but the prolefeed Bill Clinton was handing out about Red China sounded worse than insincere; it sounded sincere.

Just listen to the chief executive of the Republic praise Comrade Jiang, that well known Jeffersonian democrat: "There's a very good chance that China has the right leadership at the right time." You bet. Ask any Tibetan. Ask the dissidents in the Chinese gulag, and all those troublemakers swept off the streets in anticipation of the American president's visit. Or those three reporters from Radio Free Asia denied visas to cover the presidential pilgrimage to Beijing.

Ask the 21 million free Chinese in the real Republic of China on Taiwan. You can imagine how thrilled its people must be at the spectacle of an American president slavishly repeating, word for word, the Three No's of the party line: No two Chinas, no independence for Taiwan, no one China and one Taiwan.

And in exchange for what? A smile from the dictator? A promise to keep using our technological know-how for military purposes? And to keep taking our money as America's trade deficit with the Chinese mainland grows?

Comrade Jiang, that great leader of imagination and vision who is going to usher in democracy on the mainland, pointedly refused to renounce the use of force to conquer Taiwan. And in return an American president smiled sweetly.

All right, perhaps the comparison with Yalta is overdrawn. A fairer one might be with Dean Acheson's brilliant stroke of diplomacy in 1949, when he excluded South Korea from the American defensive perimeter. Naturally, the Communists invaded in 1950. Aggressors know an invitation when they hear one, and they can spot weakness even if an American president hadn't just displayed it at every stop from Beijing to Shanghai.

At least this presidential innocent abroad didn't apply the phrase "peace-loving" to the China of Jiang Zemin and the People's Liberation Army. But that was about the only cliche Bill Clinton spared us. Some things about the regime on the mainland not even he may be able to believe.

Very well then, what should Bill Clinton have said in the teeth of the dragon? He could have made it clear that America hopes not for One China, Two Systems, but one China, one system. One free system. He could have repeated what Ronald Reagan told the West at the outset of his remarkable presidency: "While we must be cautious about forcing the pace of change, we must not hesitate to declare our ultimate objectives and to take concrete actions to move toward them. We must be staunch in our conviction that freedom is not the sole prerogative of a lucky few, but the inalienable and universal right of all human beings."

That kind of candor might have cleared up any misunderstandings about where America stands. For the world can be a dangerous place when dictators sense that Americans have grown ambivalent about expanding freedom and defending the peace.

Or as Ronald Reagan said at the end of his remarkable presidency, when an evil empire was tottering and the future was bright with a hope that has dimmed considerably in more recent years: "In the years of Detente we tended to forget the greatest weapon the democracies have in their struggle is public candor: the truth. We must never do that again. It's not an act of belligerence to speak to the fundamental differences between totalitarianism and democracy; it's a moral imperative. It doesn't slow down the pace of negotiations; it moves them forward. Throughout history, we see evidence that adversaries negotiate seriously with democratic nations only when they know the democracies have no illusions about those adversaries." Ronald Reagan is but a shadowy presence now. We have grown disdainful of greatness, fearful of it. We want illusions, and we have a president just brimming with them about what a great, imaginative, visionary leader Communist China now has.

We don't want to hear from China's dissidents, or press the case of captive nations like Tibet, or pay even a ceremonial nod to the remnant of Sun Yat-Sen's free China on its embattled isle. That's what the polls say, and the polls are our government now. And they would seem to indicate that, much like Comrade Jiang, all we Americans want to hear from an American president these days is More Mush From The Wimp.


7/2/98: Bubba in Beijing: history does occur twice
6/30/98: Hurry back, Mr. President -- to freedom
6/24/98: When Clinton follows Quayle's lead
6/22/98: Independence Day, 2002
6/18/98: Adventures in poli-speke

©1998, Los Angeles Times Syndicate, Inc.