Bush Under More Pressure to Skip at Least the Olympic Opening in Beijing

By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 11, 2008

CRAWFORD, Tex., April 10 -- President Bush says the Summer Games in Beijing are about sports, not politics, but much of the rest of the world seems to think otherwise.

As torch-bearing runners dodge protesters and play hide-and-seek in cities around the world, Bush faces growing pressure, including from some conservatives, to bow out of the opening ceremonies in August to protest China's crackdown on Tibet and other human rights abuses.

Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, said Thursday that Bush should consider boycotting the opening ceremonies "unless they change some things pretty quickly." McCain's two Democratic rivals, Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and Barack Obama (Ill.) have made similar statements in recent days, with Clinton expressing a slightly more categorical opposition to Bush's attendance.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who is due to visit Bush in Washington next week, and French President Nicolas Sarkozy have already said they will not be at the opening. But White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said that Bush will do more good by attending the Games and by keeping a good relationship with China's leader.

Bush, who arrived here Thursday for a long weekend at the presidential ranch, has been noncommittal on attending the opening ceremony but previously showed little patience for a boycott.

"I'm going to the Olympics. I view the Olympics as a sporting event," Bush said in February. "You got the Dalai Lama crowd, you've got global warming folks, you've got Darfur. And I just -- I am not going to go and use the Olympics as an opportunity to express my opinions to the Chinese people in a public way, because I do it all the time with the president."

Olympic boycotts have a long and mixed history, starting with failed attempts to protest the Games held in Nazi-controlled Berlin in 1936. The first large boycott came when the United States and 64 other nations refused to attend the 1980 Games in Moscow after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; the Soviets and their Eastern Bloc satellites reciprocated in 1984 by sitting out the Games in Los Angeles.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Jimmy Carter's national security adviser at the time of the Moscow boycott, recalls that the decision was reached "with surprising unanimity and fairly quickly." But Brzezinski, who advises Obama on foreign policy, said the situation then was far different.

"The decision in 1980 was made in response to a grave threat to world peace in the context of the Cold War," Brzezinski wrote in an e-mail. "In contrast the tragic and deplorable events in Tibet" could still be ameliorated by the Chinese, and Bush could decide later about attending the opening.

Jerry Fowler, president of the Save Darfur Coalition, said that as China faces more global condemnation, "they may start to do what they can to stem this criticism." But Victor D. Cha, a Georgetown University professor who served as Bush's Asian affairs director, said the Chinese government will use any boycott to rally support within China, as it has with the Tibetan uprising and the torch protests.

"I think everyone took a lesson from the Cold War and the 1980 and '84 Games that boycotts achieve little politically while they trash the dreams of athletes," Cha said.

David Shambaugh, director of the China Policy Program at George Washington University, also said a boycott would not affect China's policy toward Tibet, but it would be "a definite loss of face and prestige for the Chinese leadership and nation" that Bush or other leaders could use as "a signal to their own publics."

The idea of limiting a protest to the opening ceremony appears novel, particularly since world leaders have rarely attended them. Historian Allen Guttmann, author of "The Olympics: A History of the Modern Games," said "it's not been the custom" for sitting presidents to attend opening ceremonies overseas.

Staff writer Rachel Dry and staff researcher Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.

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