I'm embarrassed for my country and my government.
Here's it's taken a poor, blind provincial Chinese human rights activist named Chen Guangcheng, taking tremendous risks, to escape from house arrest and leave his family behind, and come to the US Embassy seeking refuge, to throw into stark relief the awful human rights situation in China. It's a situation we always seem to relegate to quiet diplomacy
Hillary Clinton was hoping to get through her talks there without any hub-bub and that usual delicate quiet diplomacy, and now this.
To underscore the seriousness of the reputational risks here for Obama, the top legal advisor of the State Department, Harold Koh, was brought in to personally escort Chen to the hospital.
The harrowing account of Chen's escape, his pick-up by the Embassy diplomats who decided to give him temporary refuge, and his leaving on terms that aren't clear into a situation that worsened are all detailed in the Times.
But I'm really worried about all this, watching it from afar -- as the State Department press spokesman today describes his own position, although he's got a briefing book and cables, and we don't.
What's really going on? Why couldn't Chen stay in the Embassy? He says officials "weren't proactive enough" and essentially asked him to leave, according to the Times. Why couldn't a US official stay with him until he's had adequate time to articulate his wishes and leave the country with his family if that is what he wishes?
There's a lot of confusion, but having been involved myself in these high-stress highly visible summit dramas between superpowers, such as with the exchange in the Soviet era of political prisoner Yuri Orlov and journalist Nick Daniloff for Soviet spies (I worked as a translator for Orlov), these things are never easy. There are always difficulties and last-minute hitches and people changing their minds about things.
I don't know if the memory of the five years with the Soviet Pentacostals in the basement of the US Embassy was still fresh in anybody's mind (it would be in the mind of Wayne Merry, the diplomat who had to live through it in Moscow!). But it's tremendously difficult. Obviously, Embassy staff want to avoid a situation where they are seen to create a magnet for asylum-seekers. In the Soviet era, there were droves of them usually arrested before they even got near the door, who were filling up the labour camps (we met them in Perm 36).
On the other hand, they can't in good conscience feed people to the wolves and if someone like Chen has made it this far, you have to stay the course. And the nature of Chen's state of mind, and his possible reversals, and his possible misunderstandings aren't the issue: he's a man by whom the US must do right.
The US has to obtain more than diplomatic assurances here; they have to have the right to accompany Chen or perhaps, failing gaining agreement for that, try to deploy an NGO volunteer as a witness to accompany him and report back to the Embassy. They must try to get them all out of the country.
I feel as if Obama's foreign policy -- such as it is -- is really falling apart now in the last part of his term. It was never sterling, and caused my growing lack of support for him.
But it's almost as if he and his people said to themselves, "Let's make a series of quick wins or QIPs (quick-impact projects or whatever they call them) across the global chessboard on a variety of problem countries, and see if we can get them to stay put until I'm re-elected."
And it's that craven, utilitarian attitude toward foreign policy as merely an instrument of domestic power that is messing it up. Sure, all politicians play foreign issues for domestic audiences. Yet to turn foreign policy purely into a campaigning platform never seems to have been done so egregiously.
First, there was the stumble with the live mike with Medvedev. "I need space" -- no standing up to the Russians -- no offset when the reset hasn't worked -- and the humiliation of having that taken up by Romney who rightly said that Russia is our major enemy *because Russia has made us its enemy* and doesn't help on a whole host of problems from Syria to Afghanistan to Iran.
Next, there was the scandal where Obama Administration officials leaked a story that may not have been true, or was only partly true, that Israel was making some deal with Azerbaijan for refueling rights in some ostensible plan related to the bombing of Iran. Than Baku could hardly make anything that stark without retaliation against the Azeri minority in Iran and a host of other problems in the region didn't seem to matter. The main thing was to send a message to both Israel and Azerbaijan not to do anything funny on Iran until Obama got re-elected.
Then there was the trip to South Korea, to stand tall on North Korea and settle things there -- which backfired and led to the North Koreans firing a (failed) missile. Not good.
Then on to Latin America, where we really looked like imperialist sexist pigs with the president's own security detail taking advantage of the local women. Everybody looks bad here, and it isn't helped by Obama joking at the White House correspondents' dinner that he had to leave soon and get the Secret Service home on their new curfew.
Then this eerie trip in the middle of the night to Afghanistan to give a press conference in a heavily guarded army compound, with little said about how the country is going to really fare or what we're going to do for it after troops are pulled out -- and then with a suicide bombing right after the presidential plane leaves.
And now this Chinese mess.
I have to wonder if there was an adequate translator here -- it sounds as if there wasn't if they can't seem to tell the difference between him saying "kiss Hillary" or "see Hillary".
I can't help wondering if the reason why Chen now seems to be speaking more clearly isn't only because of a night in the hospital to treat his wounded leg, but because there's an independent reporter (i.e. not a Chinese or American diplomat) who speaks his language now covering his story, Melinda Liu at the Daily Beast.
He wants to leave with his family on Hillary Clinton's plane.