It can blow at any seam, as Tom Wolfe once famously wrote in The Right Stuff. The embarrassing fallout from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s handling of Chen Guangcheng, the blind Chinese dissident who is now accusing U.S. officials of betrayal, threatens to undermine President Obama’s carefully managed strategy of presenting himself in the campaign as a tough and trustworthy “commander in chief.”
On Thursday Mitt Romney directly criticized the president's handling of the ongoing drama. “It’s also apparent, according to these reports, if they’re accurate, that our embassy failed to put in place the kind of verifiable measures that would have assured the safety of Mr. Chen and his family," he said. "If these reports are true, this is dark day for freedom and it’s a day of shame for the Obama Administration.
At a news conference on Monday, Obama sidestepped the issue, saying vaguely, “What I would like to emphasize is that every time we meet with China, the issue of human rights comes up.”
The rapidly unfolding events in China, which come as Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner are in Beijing for high-stakes negotiations, blindsided the Obama administration while it was hard at work portraying the president as a strong leader in the opening weeks of what has quickly become a general-election campaign. Obama just returned from a dramatic speech in Kabul, Afghanistan, in which he reminded the public, yet again, that he took down Osama bin Laden a year ago and declared boldly that the end of al-Qaida “is within reach.” Last week, in a campaign speech, Vice President Joe Biden touted Obama’s record on human rights, saying that “the president shut down secret prisons overseas, banned torture, and in doing so demonstrated that we don’t have to choose between protecting our country and living our values.”
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The Chen imbroglio, however, goes to the heart of the values question—as well as one of the most-contentious and least-resolved issues in the U.S.-China relationship. Clinton has sought to deftly navigate that issue by, on one hand, emphasizing the larger strategic links between the countries over human rights but on the other delivering powerful messages on Internet freedom to a Chinese regime that has cracked down ruthlessly on it.
Until now she has been fairly successful. But Clinton’s top aides were caught by surprise after negotiating what they thought was a middle way out for Chen, the blind human-rights lawyer who had daringly escaped house arrest in his native Shandong province and found his way to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. Initially, they managed to get Chen to a hospital to treat injuries he suffered during his escape, and to secure assurances from Chinese officials that he would be treated well while remaining in China, because he wasn’t seeking asylum. But in recent hours, Chen has indicated in a slew of interviews with Western reporters that he was coerced and fears for the life and health of his family, and that he wants to go to the U.S.
There are no easy solutions. The Chinese government will not want to set a dangerous precedent by giving Chen asylum, one that could call into question its entire “mixed” regime of market freedoms combined with human-rights repression. The Obama administration, meanwhile, faces a torrent of criticism if it merely consigns Chen’s fate to the Chinese.
It can blow at any seam.