WASHINGTON — PRESIDENT BUSH'S decision to extend special trade benefits to China for another year suggests he is not troubled by what Emerson called, "a foolish consistency." But it is just the kind of thing that contributes to his single most serious political problem, the perception that he doesn't stand for anything.
The inconsistency is monumental. On the one hand, the president was willing to commit 500,000 American troops to the Persian Gulf to protect the rights of the Kuwaitis who had been overrun by the Iraqis. On the other, he consistently has been unwilling to punish the Chinese with even economic pressure for their brutality in dealing with the protests of Tiananmen Square two years ago and their continued repression of human rights.
Bush explains it away as an expression of pragmatic foreign policy. The United States, he says doesn't want "to isolate China." The Chinese, he argues, were helpful to the U.S. in the conduct of the war against Iraq and thus deserve to be rewarded. He is, he says, looking at "the big picture."
But the fact is that the Chinese have isolated themselves by their conduct. And the only inference they can draw from the continued kowtowing by the U.S. is that they can get away with anything without paying a price.
As for helping against Iraq, what about the Soviet Union? The U.S.S.R. was far more cooperative but still has not been granted the "most favored nation" status as a trading partner the president wants to extend to China for another year, although a strong, pragmatic case can be made that MFN status for the U.S.S.R. is far more important to both the Soviets and the stability of the rest of the world.
Bush seems to have a blind spot about China. Because he served as the first envoy to Beijing after the reopening of diplomatic relations 16 years ago, he seems to believe he has a special insight into the Chinese and a special relationship with its leaders. That is what moved him to send Brent Scowcroft, his national security adviser, on a secret mission to Beijing only a month after Tiananmen Square -- and at a time when Americans and the rest of the free world were voicing their revulsion against the behavior of the Chinese.
That mission and another subsequent ones were conspicuous failures, as even Bush himself has conceded. The Chinese have continued to do things their own way, both in dealing with their own young people and with the rest of the world. But the message in the U.S. policy has been that they are so big, unlike Iraq, they can get away with anything.
The Bush initiative will leave him open to political attack from both the left and right. Some prominent Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, have been preparing legislation that would extend the trade benefits for another year, but only if China takes steps to ease the repression of which it has been so blatantly guilty.
But the pressure from the right is likely to be just as intense. Bush has been suspect among Republican conservatives principally because they believe he does not share the values they consider most important. Caving in to a communist regime on a human rights question is, in their eyes, strong supporting evidence that they have reason to be suspicious.
The president's decision is not likely to have any direct political impact, however. The issue is not one that can be expected to swing many votes one way or the other in 1992. The liberals who criticize the policy wouldn't support Bush anyway, and the conservative critics in the end won't have a better alternative available to them.
But the picture of Bush as a leader without a hard core of strong beliefs is brought into focus by the China policy. And it contrasts sharply with the image he conveyed by his resolute insistence that the decision to take the offensive in the Persian Gulf was based on considerations of principle rather than simply the imperative of protecting oil supplies from the region.
The president's political strength right now is so impressive -- approval ratings in opinion polls still running above 70 percent -- that he seems invulnerable to any Democratic candidate next year. But the first rule of politics is never say never. And when he bends to the Chinese, once again, George Bush is not projecting the image of a strong, national leader beyond challenge.