June 1, 1997 in City

‘Tough Cop’ Must Deal With China

William Safire New York Times
 
Tags:column

Mike Mansfield, the great Senate majority leader after Lyndon Johnson, offered an amendment every year to draw down American forces in Europe. President Nixon and the foreign-policy establishment regularly denounced it as isolationist.

Once, after a meeting with legislative leaders in the Cabinet Room, Nixon drew Mansfield aside to say: “Stick with that amendment of yours. I use it all the time to keep the Europeans in line.”

The threat of congressional action redirecting U.S. foreign policy has been used by presidents skilled in quiet diplomacy. Their message to foreign leaders: If you don’t make some concessions to American opinion, I won’t be able to restrain my irresponsible legislators. Now here’s how we can stop them …

Bill Clinton doesn’t seem to get the hang of that in dealing with China. On the advice of business executives, and after the personal urging of Indonesia’s James Riady, Clinton threw away his economic leverage. Ever since he flip-flopped - not only betraying human rights supporters but ignoring China’s arming of Iran - he has been all give and no take.

His pre-emptive concession in 1994 on low tariffs was based on the new China lobby’s assurances that free trade would lead toward free enterprise and freedom of expression.

But the result of three years’ appeasement was drearily expressed in the State Department’s latest report: “All public dissent … was effectively silenced by intimidation, exile, the imposition of prison terms … No dissidents were known to be active at year’s end.”

Clinton’s open-doormat policy is a failure. China rings up sales in our market, strengthening its army’s grip at home, while the White House wrings its hands.

Now the House of Representatives is considering the resumption of leverage. Last year it voted 2 to 1 to approve an extension of most-favored-nation status; this year the vote will be much closer.

That’s because China’s assault on U.S. interests has created a remarkable coalition here. On the left, unions resisting free trade join liberals defending human rights and the integrity of Tibet to demand pressure on China. On the right, anti-Communist hard-liners find themselves linked with the Christian Coalition and Catholic bishops who oppose religious persecution and forced abortion.

As a result, the heat is on Congress to act as “tough cop” to Clinton’s “nice cop.” The House’s Democratic leader, Dick Gephardt, denounces “free-market Stalinism” while the Republican leader, Dick Armey, publicly agonizes at switching from his M.F.N. support last year. Lawmakers have a free shot at voting their consciences and their constituencies because they know the Senate will not override a Clinton veto.

Let the House send Beijing a message. A vote against extending M.F.N. would strengthen the President’s wet noodle of a hand and would not, this year at least, impose higher tariffs or harm the economy of Hong Kong.

Congress can further strengthen Clinton’s hand in this paradoxical way: by pursuing investigations into Chinese penetration of the White House and influence on our elections.

Asians set great store by “face.” We are constantly reminded how any attempt to impose the value of freedom, or to restrain the arming of rogue states, would be taken as a terrible insult to the pride of China’s new leaders.

But what about American face? If it is shown that Lippo, Huang, Trie & Co., in cahoots with the Beijing arms dealer and White House visitor Wang Jun, tried to manipulate U.S. policy and elections, should we not take umbrage at that insult?

While warning us loudly not to interfere in its internal affairs, China was secretly interfering in America’s internal affairs. Chinese spokesmen deny everything. But Zhou Enlai’s heirs are highly sophisticated diplomats and intelligence agents. They know we have tapes of taps on their Los Angeles consulate that show unlawful political fund-raising activity. They know these could be declassified and played at a Senate hearing or at the United States.

Prepare to take diplomatic offense, Mr. President. Let Beijing know we will accept a “rogue operation” excuse, but only if accompanied by cooperation with the FBI, human rights gestures and restraint on arms sales. Otherwise, the nice-cop president won’t be able to control that tough-cop Congress on low tariffs next time around.

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