Clash of the featherweights

George W. Bush and Al Gore both support contradictory policies on China and Cuba. Neither can explain why.

Published May 9, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

Al Gore mocks George W. Bush for being a foreign-policy lightweight, "stuck in a Cold War mind-set." The Bush campaign retorts that the vice president's approach to international affairs is incoherent and lacks credibility.

Sadly (since one of them is almost certainly our next president), they have accurately pinpointed each other's weaknesses. Consider, for example, this country's failed policies toward Cuba and China.

Bush and Gore both oppose relaxation of the economic embargo that the United States instituted against the Castro regime four decades ago; they also oppose the resumption of diplomatic ties that were severed at the same time. They offer virtually identical justifications for pursuing this failed policy, which is now under renewed scrutiny due to the Elian Gonzalez case.

Both candidates also favor an entirely opposite approach to the even more repressive communist regime that rules China. Along with the Clinton administration and its Republican allies in Congress, both candidates now favor granting China "permanent normal trade relations."

From time to time, someone asks why China should receive preferential treatment when Cuba remains isolated. The responses from Bush and Gore sound as if they were scripted by the same speechwriter.

Asked a week ago to explain why he advocates increasing trade with Beijing while maintaining the embargo on Havana, Gore replied: "We have had some openings [to Cuba] ... We have much more open communications people to people there now. We have more shipments of food and medicine there now. We have seen, in response to this, Castro going in the opposite direction, really cracking down with more repression than before."

The People's Republic of China, he continued, is not only "the largest nation in the entire world" but is "moving toward an opening, not as rapidly as we would like to see ... I don't want to idealize it, it's far from what we would like to see. But the direction ... has definitely [been toward] more openness in markets and communication."

Answering a similar question last November, Bush said that "trade with China ... will help spread freedom. The difference is ... that capital as it heads into Cuba must go through the hands of the Fidel Castro administration in one form or another, and I don't want to support the totalitarian regime of Fidel Castro." This argument is fully as lame as anything Gore has said on the subject. As Bush's friends on Capitol Hill could tell him, the dominant Chinese commercial organizations are affiliated with the government and specifically with the People's Liberation Army.

The Texas governor's knee-jerk attitude is probably encouraged by his chief tutor in foreign policy, a much-admired veteran of the Bush White House named Condoleezza Rice. When a Washington Post reporter inquired about her view of Cuba, the usually thoughtful Rice had nothing intelligent to say. Until Castro is gone, the embargo should remain in place, she insisted, because the Cuban dictator "bet on the wrong horse" and should be duly punished. If that dim remark represents the quality of the lessons Rice is giving Bush, his superficial policy comments should hardly be a surprise.

Incredibly, neither Bush nor Gore seems aware that the embargo deprives Castro and his ruling clique of nothing, while it severely damages the Cuban people, in particular the island's children, who both men profess to care about. Neither of them seems to understand that the embargo serves Castro's long-standing strategic interest in stirring up patriotic anger among the Cuban people and refurbishing the Jefe's role as a nationalist hero. They seem, therefore, incapable in this case of learning the lessons of 40 years of foreign-policy failure.

Yet even if the embargo weren't so obviously useful to Castro, American policy ought to at least be consistent toward foreign regimes that violate human rights. The current contradiction mocks our responsibility to uphold liberty everywhere and undermines the credibility of the United States.

American allies and adversaries alike wonder how Bush and Gore can claim that diplomatic engagement and open trade are good for China and bad for Cuba. They can do so only by selectively ignoring the facts contained in official U.S. publications and documents. As Gore knows very well, and as Bush may someday learn if he pays attention, Beijing's recent human rights record is no better than Havana's and isn't improving -- despite growing commercial and diplomatic contacts between China and the United States.

During the past year, both communist regimes have cracked down heavily on democracy and human rights activists, although according to independent human rights monitors, punishment of various kinds of "subversives" in China remains considerably more harsh than in Cuba. The most noticeable divergence between the two dictatorships lies in their attitudes toward religious freedom, an issue that presumably worries pious Christians like Bush and Gore.

After severely curtailing religion for more than 30 years, Castro has reversed course during the past decade. This was officially acknowledged by the Clinton administration two years ago, when the State Department distributed "background notes" on the subject: "Since 1992, the Cuban government has eased the harsher aspects of its repression of religious freedom. In preparation for the visit of Pope John Paul II in January 1998, the government further relaxed its restrictions on religion, especially toward the Roman Catholic Church."

The Chinese authorities, by contrast, have violently intensified their repression of all forms of religious and spiritual expression during the past year, without much regard for Western sensibilities. This year the Clinton administration endorsed a United Nations draft resolution voicing deep concern about "the severe measures taken [by Beijing] to restrict the peaceful activities of Buddhists, Muslims, Christians and others, including Falun Gong adherents," as well as "increased restrictions on the exercise of cultural, linguistic, religious and other freedoms of Tibetans."

Cuba's human rights record is terrible, but China's is even worse. That is the grim truth Bush and Gore must choose to ignore in order to preserve a destructive double standard that has haunted U.S. foreign policy through six administrations. Their willingness to prolong this intellectual dishonesty does not bode well for the integrity of whichever administration comes to power next January.

By Joe Conason

Joe Conason is the editor in chief of To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate website at

MORE FROM Joe Conason

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Al Gore China Cuba George W. Bush