"Ain't Gonna Study War No More"

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Right-To-Life Party, Christian, Anti-War, Pro-Life, Bible Fundamentalist, Egalitarian, Libertarian Left

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Great Wall of Fluff

It's hard to imagine how a meeting between the leaders of the world's two most powerful nations could seem insignificant. But that's what happened by the time the White House finished downgrading the protocol, lowering the expectations and erasing the substance for President Hu Jintao's visit.

It's not as if presidents of China came to the White House very often. (The last time was nine years ago.) And it's not as if there were no issues of immense importance. (Just take the world's dwindling fossil fuels and growing nuclear arsenals, then move on to trade and human rights.)

Surely Presidents Bush and Hu could have given the impression that they were talking over important matters. Instead all they appeared to do was agree to disagree and offer up a series of smiling photo ops in which there was no substance behind the smiles. Mr. Bush could not even manage to give Mr. Hu the state dinner he wanted, so the Chinese leader made his first stop in the other Washington and met with the head of Microsoft before the leader of the free world.

Any progress, no matter how small, on the really big issues like energy and nonproliferation would have required the two presidents to spend major political capital. But no capital spending plans were announced — perhaps because Mr. Bush does not have a lot to spend and Mr. Hu is not willing to dip into his own account. Or perhaps that might have gotten in the way of the choreography, which a Falun Gong protester managed to disrupt anyway.

The United States, the world's top energy guzzler, and China, with the world's fastest-growing energy thirst, both need to make adjustments so that their combined demand does not send oil prices through the roof. Already China's scramble to lock up energy supplies is cutting across American foreign policy goals, like putting pressure on Iran and Sudan. But China is not prepared to discuss changing its ways unless America is prepared to finally become serious about conservation and efficiency.

It is the same when it comes to putting serious pressure on those countries whose nuclear weapons programs most concern Washington. China is reluctant to tighten the screws on Iran, from which it buys oil, and North Korea, whose collapse would create major problems along their shared border.

To overcome that reluctance, Mr. Bush would have to be willing to talk about things like offering those countries economic incentives, security guarantees and access to civilian nuclear fuel if they verifiably renounce their nuclear ambitions.

On trade, the two countries have a common interest in resisting growing protectionist pressures in Congress, where China is wrongly being blamed for economic and fiscal problems the United States has largely brought on itself. This is another discussion Mr. Bush is not very eager to get into.

The visit's least excusable failure was on human rights, where the pre-existing script would have done fine. When Mr. Hu's predecessor, Jiang Zemin, came to the White House in 1997, he and President Bill Clinton held a joint news conference where Mr. Clinton publicly urged his guest to expand political freedoms in China. It's an honored ritual of American democracy. But this time Mr. Bush agreed to downgrade the news conference to a few questions from the White House pool. He may have thought he was doing Mr. Hu a favor, but it is a favor China's repressed people will not appreciate.

Published: April 23, 2006


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