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No Olympic Medal for Bush—A Commentary by Ronan O’Sullivan Farrow ’09

The following commentary was published in The Wall Street Journal on July 11, 2008.

No Olympic Medal for Bush
By Ronan O’Sullivan Farrow

As U.S. congressional leaders disbanded for the July Fourth holiday last week, the White House quietly released travel schedules confirming that President Bush will attend the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympic Games.

The careful timing will not mute the impact of the decision. As a rising tide of world leaders boycotts the ceremony, Mr. Bush will lend his imprimatur to a regime that continues to jail dissidents and persecute religious groups, back a criminal junta in Burma and bankroll what Mr. Bush himself has described as genocide in Darfur.

Politicians and human-rights advocates have sharply criticized the decision, with some drawing comparisons to leaders who attended the 1936 Berlin Olympics, which served as a propaganda machine for Hitler's regime. "If this were 1936," asked Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R., Calif.), "would President Bush be anxious to sit next to Adolf?"

The White House has insisted that Mr. Bush views the Olympics as an apolitical sporting event. But he has chosen to participate in the one portion of the Games aimed at showcasing the Beijing regime's political and economic primacy.

A contingent of world leaders is boycotting the ceremony, including British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and European Parliament President Hans-Gert Poettering. In the U.S., Barack Obama and John McCain have taken strong positions. Sen. McCain has indicated he would not have attended without significant reform on China's part, while Sen. Obama directly called Mr. Bush to task for his decision. Scores of lawmakers have proposed boycotts, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

China has historically resisted international pressure. But it has jumped to defend the all-important Beijing Olympics. The regime responded to publicity linking Darfur to the Games last year with startling immediacy, hastily placing defensive articles in U.S. newspapers and lifting a longstanding veto threat to allow the U.N. to authorize peacekeepers for Darfur. With the Olympics an unprecedented point of leverage, an opening ceremony boycott may have been one of the few gestures capable of moving Beijing.

Mr. Bush could have declined to attend at little political expense. A boycott limited to the opening ceremony would avoid targeting the athletes competing in the Games. It would send a powerful symbolic message -- a clear refusal to endorse mass murder, genocide and religious persecution -- without substantively affecting economic or political ties.

Instead, Mr. Bush will stand shoulder-to-shoulder with China's President Hu Jintao at a time when his regime's abuses continue unabated.

Mr. Bush has passed up a critical opportunity, but he still has the power to demonstrate moral leadership. How he chooses to frame his decision will have real impact. He should use his attendance as a platform to press China to live up to its reform promises, and join human-rights groups in expressing hope that Beijing will release political prisoners before the opening ceremony. He should reiterate the pleas of other world leaders that China use its unparalleled influence with Sudan to halt the slaughter in Darfur.

Mr. Bush claimed that declining the invitation would be "an affront to the Chinese people." In fact, not attending would have been a far stronger show of solidarity with individuals across China who have been brutalized by the Beijing regime. Baiqiao Tang, who was imprisoned for participating in the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, was one of several Chinese dissidents urging leaders not to whitewash Beijing's image. "I feel so sad," he said last week at City Hall in Manhattan, "that most of the political leaders are going to go to the opening ceremony of the Games with Chinese Communist Party leaders."

The U.S. has lost an opportunity to stand up for the people of Darfur and Burma, and for countless Chinese citizens like Mr. Tang. But the Bush administration still has a chance to serve as a moral voice on their behalf, and to make good on its professed commitment to defending democracy and freedom across the world.

Mr. Farrow, a student at Yale Law School, has worked on human rights issues in Darfur and on U.S.-Sino relations for the House Foreign Affairs Committee.