By PHILIP J CUNNINGHAM
BEIJING While China has been dazzling the world with its economic prowess and Olympic pyrotechnics, a very unpopular US president has quietly dazzled his Asian hosts with uncharacteristically diplomatic behavior.
It may be a case of too little too late, but nuanced diplomacy from a man best known for his swagger and war-mongering comes as a counter-intuitive surprise. Has the self-styled cowboy president finally learned to walk the walk and talk the talk of diplomacy? Can small gestures of humanity from the poster boy of a generally inhumane administration reverse the self-inflicted decline of American values at this late hour?
Consistently courteous, even going out of his way to make a show of compassion, and speak in favor of peace, President Bush in recent days has given us a glimpse of what his administration might have been like had he been more like his father, had he not, in some kind of weird Oedipal rage, stacked the deck in favor of Dick Cheney and the neo-cons.
In recent days Bush Junior, sometimes with Bush Senior standing at his side, has spoken up in favor of core American values such as free press, religion and assembly with his usual degree of certitude but without the haughty neo-con triumphalism that threatened to make freedom, as in freedom fries, an empty Orwellian word.
After seven years of belligerent posturing and mangling of the English language, Bush shows up in Asia relaxed, affable, almost reasonable. It’s as if he never truly wanted to be president in the first place and is relieved to see light at the end of the tunnel.
Going to South Korea, as he did, at a time when incipient anti-Americanism threatens to explode takes a certain degree of political courage, as did his initially unpopular decision to attend the Beijing Olympics. Putting Thailand on his itinerary was an important diplomatic gesture to an old friend and ally of whom much has been demanded as an outpost in the war on terror but for whom little compassion has been evident since the economic crisis of 1997.
So when 9-11 came around and the US tried to paint the world into two camps, "with us or against us." Prime Minister Thaksin’s response was loaded with a kind of passive-aggressive ambiguity. “We’re neutral.”
The mere visit of a US president can't change all that but there are signs of healing, no where more evident than in the photo-op of President Bush gently embracing a sick child at Father Joe Maier's mission for the poor in the slums of Bangkok.
While the sight of Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej and President Bush conferring is enough to cause a university cynic to take umbrage, wondering how two decidedly second-tier intellects could actually become national leaders, one might also extract something positive from that fact that two legal, if not fully competent, representatives of two friendly peoples are offering a toast to continued Thai-American amity.
Since arriving here in Beijing, his performance has soared. He has deftly balanced pressures from home to speak out on human rights while not unduly offending the Olympic hosts, who also happen to be legal representatives, fully competent or otherwise, of the most populous nation on earth.
Chastising China on human rights from a podium in Bangkok may have sounded like something of a pot shot, and Chinese authorities immediately feigned indignation with a mild boiler-plate denunciation of his denunciation, but his hosts were clearly pleased that he got most of that out of his system before arriving at Beijing Airport.
Commandeering the spanking new Westin Hotel for the traveling White House, which just happens to be across the street from the brand-new US embassy where Clark Randt, an old buddy serves as ambassador, Bush quickly set an amicable tone for a visit that, in media terms at least, has been hard to distinguish from a family vacation, albeit, that of an extremely privileged family.
What sports fan wouldn’t envy the magic pass to any Olympic event that strikes his fancy, with VIP seats and brisk motorcade access via emptied streets guaranteed? Bush attended the opening ceremony, much to the pleasure of his hosts, along with his family and old, doddering Henry Kissinger in tow. At the founding ceremony for the new embassy he exchanged quips with his father, who he had briefly resided with at the American mission in Beijing in 1975, and spoke with credibility about how China has changed for the better since then.
Bush Senior seems to have finally instilled some understated Yankee restraint in a quasi-rebellious son prone to fits of Texas bragging, the productive result being a more nuanced China policy than the anti-China Cheney cabal would ever be capable of.
The presence of Russia's paramount leader, not to mention 80 other heads of state in Beijing, offered the American president a rare opportunity for personal diplomacy, most especially with the man whose soulful Russian eyes he once gushingly approved of.
Vladimir Putin's impatient, pale countenance at the stunning opening ceremony held at the Bird’s Nest stadium in Beijing reflected pressures other than the oppressive heat --his country was exchanging bloody strikes with Georgia as he sat through the interminable introductions in French, English and Chinese of sweaty athletic delegations from 204 countries.
The message Bush had for Putin in the days that followed was simple; so simple one wishes Bush could have heeded the same advice on Iraq: make peace not war.
The family vacation trope continued to tickle the news media regardless of political tensions mounting behind the scenes. There’s something about faraway Beijing, where the hospitality for visiting heads of state is first-class, that appeals to presidents unpopular at home. That it imparted a second life and legacy for Nixon’s career cannot be disputed. Bill and Hillary Clinton famously spent a full week in China in 1998, visibly reluctant to face the heat back home due to the minor but memorably salacious Lewinsky scandal then creeping into US headlines.
In tourist mode, Laura Bush got to wander around an empty Forbidden City, a stunning privilege I can vouch for as I once had rare access to the same locale while in the employ of Bernardo Bertolucci during the filming of “The Last Emperor.” Meanwhile the president, who can’t be bothered with reading the first draft of history in newspapers, let alone thick tomes, remains admirably active for a man of his age and elected instead to hit the biking trails for some exercise.
The light-hearted tone of the Bush visit continued, mixed with soft-spoken prods on human rights mixed and respectful comments about China finding its own way. The US president found himself in a decidedly less-than-presidential dilemma at the beach volleyball venue at Chaoyang Park when a sexy bikini-clad US athlete invited him to smack her backside. It’s best left to the reader to surmise what Bush's immediate predecessor might have done with such an invitation while noting that Bush handled the crisis-in-opportunity well, patting the sportswoman high on the back like he does with Putin, Hu Jintao and everyone else he wants to establish alpha-male status with.
All in all, a compelling performance from a man whose historical legacy hovers near “worst ever”, a man who conned a frightened nation into war while blithely ignoring the worst natural disaster in recent US history, a man who trampled on US human rights and racked up credible charges of war criminality in his treatment of foreign enemies.
If only he could make the first seven years of his presidency go away, he’d be on track to re-invigorating US-Asia relations. Where was George W the diplomat when the world needed him most?