On Monday, Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-NY, called for President George W. Bush to refrain from personally participating in the opening ceremony of the Beijing Summer Olympics to protest China's record on human rights.
The circumstances are dramatically different. But the dilemma of whether or not a public figure should lend his credibility to the China Olympics occurred last year, when firm director Steven Spielberg sought the opinion of former President Bill Clinton (among dozens of others) as to whether he should remain an "Overseas Artistic Director" for the opening and closing ceremonies for Olympics despite his serious concerns about China's role in the genocide in Darfur.
In 2007, knowledgeable sources say, the former President advised Spielberg to participate, that he could be an effective agent for positive change by working with China. Spielberg wasn't sure. He didn't sign his contract with the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games.
Clinton's wife on Monday took the complete opposite approach.
"The violent clashes in Tibet and the failure of the Chinese government to use its full leverage with Sudan to stop the genocide in Darfur are opportunities for Presidential leadership," Clinton said in a written statement. "These events underscore why I believe the Bush administration has been wrong to downplay human rights in its policy towards China. At this time, and in light of recent events, I believe President Bush should not plan on attending the opening ceremonies in Beijing, absent major changes by the Chinese government."
Is this an example of the shifting landscape of these international politics? The crackdown in Tibet? A disagreement between the power-couple (one where Hillary Clinton is either more hawkish or more of a human rights activist than her husband, depending on your point of view)? The substantial difference between a boycott by President Bush and one by Steven Spielberg? Or the difference between being a president and trying to become one?
That's unclear, and the Clinton campaign did not respond to questions about the matter. But this possible contradiction illustrates the differing views on the best way to get China's cooperation when it comes to Darfur, Tibet, and human rights within its own country, and how for many in the foreign policy establishment there are no any easy answers on this issue.
Throughout 2007, Spielberg tried to work within the system, meeting with Chinese Ambassador Zhou Wenzhong and Special Envoy Liu Guijin, writing to President Hu Jintao to urge him to pressure the Sudanese government to let United Nations peacekeeping troops into the region.
It was not always easy. Actress and Darfur activist Mia Farrow wrote an op-ed in the March 28, 2007, Wall Street Journal, warning Spielberg that he might "go down in history as the Leni Riefenstahl of the Beijing Games," a reference to the infamous Nazi propagandist.
On April 2, Spielberg wrote to President Hu Jintao, saying that "the government of Sudan is engaged in a policy which is best described as a genocide. I have only recently come to understand fully the extent of China’s involvement in the region and its strategic and supportive relationship with the Sudanese government. I share the concern of many around the world who believe that China should be a clear advocate for United Nations action to bring the genocide in Darfur to an end."
In July 2007, Spielberg was heartened with China's support of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1769 creating a joint UN-African Union peacekeeping force.
But the government of Sudan put up roadblocks to the deployment of that force. Humanitarian officials were expelled from the country and violence stepped up against the people of Darfur.
On November 15, Spielberg wrote to President Hu Jintao once again, noting that since the passage of Resolution 1769, "the situation in Darfur has deteriorated and while China's earlier efforts were encouraging, its silence in the wake of Sudan’s recent actions and the resulting chaos on the ground has been disturbing. ...This week the United Nations warned that unless Sudan quickly accepts the hybrid peacekeeping force and key countries contribute critical equipment needed for the peacekeeping efforts, the force will not be prepared for deployment in January 2008 - already two long months away. So I write to you now with a renewed sense of urgency in the hope that China will redouble its efforts to pressure Sudan to join in a fair peace agreement and, at last, bring an end to the genocide."
He ended his letter, saying, "The world needs China to lead here. So many lives are at stake."
Less than three months later, with no action by China, Spielberg resigned from the Olympics, writing in a statement that the Sudanese "government bears the bulk of the responsibility for these on-going crimes but the international community, and particularly China, should be doing more to end the continuing human suffering there."
Kenneth Lieberthal, the senior director for Asia on the National Security Council for then-President Bill Clinton from 1998 through 2000, says that Sen. Hillary Clinton's call for President Bush to boycott the opening ceremonies would be counter-productive.
"I think that there is a question of whether you want to do this in a way that is more likely to lead to real progress rather than more likely to lead to the Chinese digging in their heels because they're losing face in very public fashion," Lieberthal told ABC News.
Lieberthal says the Chinese government feels it has worked really hard to make the Olympics successful and have met its obligations. Chinese officials are likely to look at the recent outbreak of violent between the Chinese and Tibetans and "see how the initial violence by Tibetans against the Chinese was downplayed in the western media…and see western governments jump on board the bandwagon, and they're likely to feel that no matter what they do the West will not think of them as major players."
His suggestion for President Bush would be to not boycott the Olympics, "not to publicly say, 'I'm not going unless…' which would make it very difficult for President Hu Jintao to bend," but to tell President Hu Jintao that, "the way the Chinese government is handling, say, the Tibet issue is eroding the ground from under him, and he'd like to see following take place, and get Hu working with him. It would be more effective to do it that way. As opposed to being very public and making a big media splash that's counterproductive. Like a lot of things in foreign policy, what you might want to do turns out not to be most effective thing to do."
Lieberthal said he has not talked to President Bill Clinton in the last year. Based on what he knows of the former President, I asked him what he thought the former president was likely to think about boycotting the Olympic games' opening ceremony.
"I'll put it this way," Lieberthal said. "If you look at the evolution his approach to China over the two terms of his presidency, his evolution was in the direction of what I indicated President Bush ought to do."