Clinton's Brave Retreat

May 29, 1994

In politics as in war, it is more difficult to execute a retreat than to go on the offensive. President Clinton's retreat from ill-conceived attempts to base U.S. trade policy with China on the human rights record of the hardline Beijing regime is one of the most difficult calls he has made since taking office. But his decision was correct and courageous. It shores up the U.S. position in Asia and actually promotes a trend toward individual liberty in China that is linked to a booming economy.

That Mr. Clinton is taking catcalls from the likes of Senate majority leader George Mitchell and House majority leader Richard Gephardt says more about what is wrong with the president's party than about the president. The Democrats continue to be tugged into untenable positions by protectionists, Big Labor and self-appointed moralists and causists. As a candidate for the White House, Mr. Clinton went along with their get-tough tactics toward China and even accused George Bush of "coddling" the Beijing masterminds of the Tiananmen Square massacre. As president, he has felt the need to echo Mr. Bush's admonition that the United States must "avoid isolating China."

The reasons are clear enough. China is a nuclear power with veto authority in the U.N. Security Council. It is the world's most populous nation with the world's fastest-growing economy. It has more influence than any other country over a North Korean regime suspected of building a nuclear weapons arsenal. It will take possession of Hong Kong later in this decade, a step with enormous ramifications in Asia. Just before the Clinton decision, China eliminated 195 quota and license regulations in preparation for joining the World Trade Organization -- a step toward drawing closer to the international community in other productive ways.

Senator Mitchell and Representative Gephardt have announced their intention to introduce legislation to overturn Mr. Clinton's order preserving "most favored nation" (i.e. normal) trading status with China. President Bush had to veto such legislation three times. In the event the Democratic majority enacts a similar measure once again, President Clinton can count on Republican support if he casts another veto. The ironies are large.

In his executive order, the president took one punitive step by banning the import of guns and ammunition made by factories affiliated with the People's Liberation Army. This will eliminate only a $100 million sliver of $31 billion in Chinese exports to the United States. It can be regarded more as a gun-control measure than a trade sanction, and welcomed as such.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow once wrote that "a masterly retreat is itself a victory." It is too early to determine that Mr. Clinton's retreat is masterly. But because facts and reality and a clear appreciation of U.S. national interests are on his side, he should in the end come out all right on this issue. Had he opted the other way, he would have had a foreign policy disaster on his hands.

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