Will Events in China Have Any Lasting Impact on Obama?

The Republican strategist and Democratic pollster in their biweekly face-off about Election 2012

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U.S. Embassy Beijing Press / Getty Images)

In this handout photograph provided by the U.S. Embassy Beijing press office, Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng (C) holds hands with U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke (R) in Beijing, China on May 2, 2012.

Penn: Going after the Obama administration over its handling of the Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng, as the Romney campaign recently did, was a mistake. The far more sensible path when a sensitive diplomatic maneuver is underway is to sit tight and root for America to succeed. As a rule, you never step into an ongoing matter involving the security and prestige of the United States and potentially also give aid and comfort to the other side in the process.

The president and his team have made major progress on the image of the United States abroad, in finding and killing Osama Bin Laden and winding down the Iraq war. A Democrat’s typical weakness has become a strength, and Romney only took himself off message last week — and looked small.

Recent polls show that only 7% of Americans view foreign policy and related issues as the most important problem facing the country today, with some polls registering the importance of foreign policy as low as 1%. These same polls show that 72% of Americans named an economic issue as the most important for the country to focus on.

Romney needs an election on the economy. An anemic jobs report gave him a potential opportunity. But instead, Romney spent days trying to trigger national security criticisms of the Obama administration and, even if he succeeded, which I doubt, he will not have won any new votes anyway.

In this case, you have to wonder what the Romney team was thinking.

(MORE: Why China’s Rise Is Great for America)

Hughes: For a few days, the eyes of the world were riveted on a blind man in China. But will the dramatic case of dissident Chen Guangcheng and the broader issue of America’s diplomacy with China have any lasting impact on the American presidential contest? My head says probably not — but my heart says it should.

At stake is nothing less than America’s role as the world’s champion of human rights and freedom. For a time during the tense negotiations over Mr. Chen’s future, it appeared the Obama administration was putting our national interest in having a successful diplomatic meeting ahead of our deepest values.

I’ll never forget visiting a classroom in Beijing, where a U.S. Fulbright scholar was teaching Chinese high school students to speak English. To do so, she was using the speeches and writings of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King. Watching eager young Chinese students recite “I Have a Dream” is one of the most vivid and powerful memories of my time in government service.

And as I reflected on the memorable words of Dr. King’s “Letter from A Birmingham Jail,” I realized they summed up the difference between America’s approach to the world and China’s. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” Dr. King wrote. China believes the way it stifles its own people is an internal matter with which other countries should not interfere. America knows “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” and that basic human rights belong not just to citizens of one country but to all human beings everywhere because they were “endowed by our Creator.”

Our relationship with China involves many shared interests, from critical economic and trade policies to regional and international security priorities. Interests can be negotiated. But values cannot. Far too often, the Obama administration has been tepid in asserting America’s role as the world’s champion of human rights. When Secretary Clinton says “as part of our dialogue” we raise the issue, she appears to be checking the box, walking on diplomatic eggshells. President Obama, in a news conference with Chinese President Hu Jintao, failed to even raise the issue of human rights and then gave China the diplomatic equivalent of a hall pass, saying, “They have a different culture, a different political system.”

It’s still unclear whether Mr. Chen truly wanted to remain in China and thus be taken from the American embassy and left alone at a Chinese hospital, or whether he later changed his mind. According to media reports, Mr. Chen told friends he was pressured, but American officials say he made a free choice and later asked to come to America.

While American voters are almost certainly more focused on the issues of jobs and our domestic economy this year, I hope they will at least consider the Obama administration’s failure to lead on this issue. Mr. Chen literally and heroically crawled toward freedom; the least we can do is show freedom activists in China and elsewhere that America will champion their cause.

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