"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.
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.
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.
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.