This Blind Chinese Lawyer May Be the Toughest Foreign Policy Challenge Obama Has Ever Faced

How the White House deals with Chen Guangcheng, reportedly hiding in an American embassy, could reveal more about its agenda and values abroad than maybe any other international crisis.

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Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng. AP.

The Chinese government is so terrified of Chen Guangcheng that, when rumors spread on Sunday that he had boarded United Airlines flight 898 from Beijing to Washington, state censors almost immediately blocked Weibo users from sending any messages with the word "UA898." Chen, a lawyer who campaigned against state-forced sterilizations and abortions meant to enforce China's one-child policy, is blind; the words "blind man" were also blocked online. Though Chinese police often bend over backwards to avoid harming Westerners, especially high-profile ones, they roughed up Christian Bale and a CNN crew for trying to visit the building where he is kept under house arrest.

This is how seriously the Chinese government takes Chen Guangcheng. Now, Chen has escaped house arrest and reportedly fled to the American embassy in Beijing. In immediate human terms, the U.S. response would be easy and automatic: grant him legal asylum and fly him back to the United States. But foreign policy is more complicated than that. If China knocked around Christian Bale just for trying to shake Chen's hand, what would the country to do the American foreign policy agenda if Obama grants Chen his freedom to continue raising awareness about Communist Party abuses, embarrassing the leaders of that party in the process?

"We're going to make sure that we do this in the appropriate way and that appropriate balance is struck," U.S. counterterrorism adviser John Brennan carefully and tellingly put it on Fox News Sunday. Brennan said that Obama tries to "balance our commitment to human rights" as well as "to carry out our relationships with key countries overseas." Less than two months ago, the police chief of Chongqing rushed into an American consulate to confess his boss's most heinous abuses -- including his role in the murder of a British citizen -- and to seek asylum. The U.S. officials turned him away, and the police chief was arrested. This isn't the same situation -- the police chief had committed his share of crimes as well, and Chen Guangcheng is one of China's most successful activists and one of its best known abroad -- but the police chief's case highlights how sensitive the U.S. is about upsetting China's leadership.

If Chen Guangcheng is still locked up in an American diplomatic office, he poses a remarkable challenge to President Obama, one that asks how U.S. foreign policy under his leadership balances American ideals with American interests, whether he is able to achieve both, and, if not, which he will privilege. Obama's foreign policy team, and possibly Obama himself, face a question that is about more than just the fate of this one lawyer, or even about the U.S.-China relationship. It's about the role that America plays in the world, what we do with all the military and economic power at our fingertips.

It's hard not to think of the clichéd action movie climax, when the hero is forced to choose between saving, say, the sidekick or the love interest. He always managed to save both -- it makes for a better ending -- but the scene is compelling because it's an impossible choice, and because in saving one he is condemning the other. Chen's flight to a U.S. diplomatic building forces Obama to choose between ferrying Chen out of China or keeping him there, between human rights or diplomacy, between America's image in the world or its political capital with Beijing, between making China a little bit more democratic or a little bit more cooperative. Obama might be able to have it both ways, like the Hollywood hero, but he will probably have to sacrifice something.

How Obama deals with Chen Guangcheng may say more about his foreign policy and what it values than maybe any other such crisis he has faced during his presidency. That's not because Chen is so important; he is important, but not anywhere near the scale of Iran or North Korea or the Arab Spring. It's because his dilemma forces Obama to choose between two starkly different visions of American foreign policy.

In one sense, freeing this one dissident would risk daunting costs to Obama's agenda abroad; in another, to bring Chen to freedom would seem the very embodiment of American power at its brightest. A blind man of humble origins, Chen got his start fighting for disabled rights in a country that barely recognized them, and ended up taking on some of his government's cruelest abuses and most powerful interests. The U.S. State Department has previously called for his release. And, if he's seeking refugee status, the U.S. is probably obligated under international law to grant it.

Yet, Chen's release would infuriate the Chinese government, which the Obama administration has spent years assiduously courting. China's help is essential for addressing nearly every major foreign policy issue Obama faces, from the conflicts in Syria and Sudan, to containing Iran and North Korea, to curbing global warming, to determining how the next century of Pacific power will play out. There's also, of course, the U.S.-Chinese economic relationship, which is crucial for U.S. economic growth, which will be necessary for Obama's reelection.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner are already scheduled to meet with their Chinese counterparts this Thursday and Friday for a "Strategic and Economic Dialogue" that will likely encompass all of these issues and more. If Chen has been released back into China, Clinton and Geithner are likely to have an easier time pushing their agenda; if Chen is still under U.S. protection or has been removed from China, the U.S. can expect less cooperation, setting back. That's a high price for one Chinese dissident. But Obama's other choice is maybe just as painful: throwing a brave and selfless human rights activist, a man who campaigned against forced abortions and forced sterilizations, back to a government that already executes 5,000 people every year.

This is far from the most important foreign policy challenge Obama has faced, the most dangerous, or the most historically significant. Still, the Chen case is unique because, even with its vastly lower stakes, it has so strongly pitted American strategy against American ideology that the White House must rethink these most fundamental premises of U.S. foreign policy in order to resolve them. Iran and North Korea, for example, are much greater threats with much higher stakes, but Obama inherited well-worn policies of containment on both. Managing those containments is surely difficult, but it's still mostly a question of engineering policy, not of fundamentally questioning the ideologies behind that policy.

Obama's usual foreign policy modus operandi -- calculated, cool-headed pragmatism -- doesn't offer as much guidance here as it might have during past crises. The pragmatic response to the Egyptian revolution, shifting support to the protesters once they looked likely to oust President Hosni Mubarak; to the Libyan civil war, backing NATO without leading it; to the end of the Iraq war, trying to convince the government there to host U.S. troops but not forcing it. But there's no obviously pragmatic response to Chen, and that's exactly what makes it such a momentous challenge for Obama. The stakes are not in Chen's meaning for the world -- neither the U.S.-China relationship nor American democracy-promotion are likely to live or die by what happens to this blind dissident -- but in Chen's meaning for how Obama uses American power in the world.