Obama's Realpolitik Response to the Cheng Guangcheng Case

Mitt Romney might paint Obama as weak on foreign policy, but the Chen case shows just how calculating, even Kissingerian, he can be.

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U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell accompanies Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng out of the U.S. embassy. / Reuters

Can anyone doubt that the blind lawyer and dissident Chen Guangcheng, who apparently says that he feels a "little" lied to by American embassy officials in Beijing, was, more or less, hustled out and dumped into a hospital before he could further disrupt Chinese-American relations, especially with high-level meetings coming up between Hillary Clinton, Timothy Geithner and their Chinese counterparts? American ambassador Gary Locke says Chen wasn't encouraged to leave. But that denials are needed is itself telling and the brouhaha over Chen shows few signs of dying down as he now seems to be indicating that he would like to request asylum in America.

But as tensions rise with China over Chen's fate that's the last thing Obama wants to provide. If any episode crystallizes the ruthlessness of President Obama, it should be this one. Even as the GOP tries to depict him as an impotent president--and as Mitt Romney's campaign is mired in an ugly controversy over the sudden resignation of a gay foreign policy aide named Richard Grenell who was being hounded by the Christian Right--he is acting more ruthlessly and decisively than almost any American president in recent memory, including George W. Bush.

Obama gives off every sign of taking coldly antiseptic positions in foreign affairs. Again and again, Obama has dismissed the notion that he should get involved in the internal affairs of other countries. The Arab Spring? He viewed it with caution. Libya? He tried to lead from behind. Syria? He wants nothing to do with it.

This approach might be called Obama's neo-Kissingerianism. Neocons and much of the Right view Obama's stances as abhorrent. It's immoral realpolitik. Obama is jettisoning the values that Americans should uphold. It can, for example, be safely assumed that a chorus of indignation will be directed at Obama for having abandoned Chen in his greatest moment of peril. Here is Jennifer Rubin lambasting what she views as Obama's abandonment of Chen in the Washington Post:

This is par for the course--it is the same jumble of incompetence, naivete and timidity that characerizes the Obama foreign policy.

Wrong. There is nothing naive or timid about the administration's approach. If anything, it appears to be coldly calculating. The administration wanted to divest itself of a problem, and thought it was perhaps carving out a deal that would allow Chen to live safely in China. The "agreement" it struck with China may not be as weak as commonly assumed, though it could also prove entirely phyrric. If Chinese security forces were to attack Chen or his family, the country would suffer a public-relations disaster abroad. Still, once the hubbub dies down, Chen will likely be at the mercy of Chinese officials.  In any case, Obama--and Clinton--gave every sign of trying to wriggle out of the Chen affair with as little publicity as possible. Instead of seizing upon it to upbraid the Chinese, they soft-pedaled it, barely acknowledging that he was even residing in the American embassy in Beijing.

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