China Crackup

China Crackup

China Crackup

How you look at things.
March 20 1999 3:30 AM

China Crackup

Republicans are up in arms about the latest spy fiasco, but they're not sure why.

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For the past two weeks, Republicans have raised a ruckus over President Clinton's failure to promptly remove a suspected Chinese spy from the Los Alamos nuclear lab. Making the GOP's case on Face the Nation, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., blamed the spy fiasco on "six years of inattention and a feckless photo-op foreign policy." But when asked how he would treat China, McCain sketched a policy hardly distinguishable from Clinton's. And when asked about Russia's loose nukes, he conceded, "I don't know the answer to this. Maybe it's inappropriate for me to come on this program."

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It's painful to watch Republicans discuss foreign affairs these days. No doctrine binds together their complaints about Clinton's actions. While calling him soft on China, many quietly espouse the same Clinton-Bush policy of trade-plus-scolding. While demanding boldness abroad, they have opposed military action in Kosovo, Iraq, Sudan, and Afghanistan. And while falling back on Cold War rhetoric, they ignore Russia's nuclear garage sale. Winning a presidential election on foreign policy will be hard enough. Winning it without a coherent message will be impossible. The Republican identity crisis is fourfold.

1.The Cold War. Many Republicans see the spy scandal as an opportunity to revive Cold War rhetoric. They allude constantly to "Los Alamos" and "the Rosenbergs." On Meet the Press, Pat Buchanan accused Clinton of failing to "clean out a nest of spies in America's atomic laboratories who've stolen the most vital secrets since the Rosenbergs went to the electric chair." At a Senate hearing Tuesday, another presidential hopeful, Sen. Bob Smith, R-N.H., compared the Chinese spy case to past Soviet espionage and warned that it might precipitate another "arms race."

Other Republicans, however, realize that nuclear threats are now diffuse rather than concentrated in one enemy. Appearing on the same show with Buchanan, Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., rejected the Cold War model: "I accept the fact that [the Chinese] spy on us. Many people do." At Tuesday's hearing, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner, R-Va., tried to broaden the discussion from China, which has 24 missiles that can reach the United States, to Russia, whose 7,000 such weapons could end up on the black market.

The missile-defense debate highlights the Republican dilemma. The original Strategic Defense Initiative was supposed to defend the United States against a massive nuclear strike by the Soviet Union. By contrast, the missile-defense program approved by the Senate Wednesday is designed to stop one or two missiles fired by a rogue nation such as North Korea or Iran. If Buchanan and Lugar can't agree on which kind of threat China poses, they won't be able to agree which kind of anti-missile system the GOP should stand for.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

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2. Capitalism. The GOP has been the party of free trade. President Bush made this the linchpin of U.S. China policy. Over the past two years, the Republican Congress has renewed most-favored-nation trade status for China, approved legislation enabling U.S. companies to sell China nonmilitary nuclear technology, and killed a proposed ban on satellite sales to the Chinese. More than 100 House Republicans signed up last month to sponsor legislation to relax restrictions on exports of encryption technology, despite Clinton's objections that this technology might be passed to terrorists. This week, the Republican-leaning business community launched a lobbying blitz to remind "hawks" in Congress that China "will be the second-largest computer market in the world by the year 2000."

Yet the GOP's best-known hawk, Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., is leading the charge to restrict trade with China as punishment for its spying. "The continuing problems with Chinese human rights violations, espionage, and possible technology transfers suggest that this is not the appropriate time for China to enter" the World Trade Organization, he says. Like-minded strategist Bill Kristol denounces Republicans who have sided with Clinton's policy of "trade above all else in China."

3.Constructive engagement. Having ripped Bush's engagement policy in 1992, Buchanan is already locking and loading the same critique for 2000. "The policy of engagement has devolved and degenerated into a policy of appeasement," he declared this week. Many conservatives say engagement has led to nuclear proliferation, deterioration in human rights, and now laxity against espionage.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich avidly defended engagement, however, and his successor, Rep. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., agrees. "The more we're involved with China, the better off we are--for us and for China and the Pacific area," Hastert said last week. "It's also important that we stress our views on human rights. If we aren't engaged, we can't do that." Likewise, Sen. Craig Thomas, R-Wyo., rejected his colleagues' fierce response to the spy story: "I've never supported the idea that every time China does something we don't like we ought to submit a thing to the Senate and get after them."

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The GOP's identity crisis over engagement is almost comic. When Sam Donaldson pointed out on This Week that two Republicans, President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, had pioneered engagement in the Shanghai Communiqué, George Will exploded: "I was for impeaching Nixon over the Shanghai Communiqué!" Clinton's spokesmen have learned to brush off Republican critics of engagement by quoting the policy's Republican defenders.

4.Clinton. Republicans aren't sure whether to blame the spy case on ideology or corruption. Some want to paint Democrats as soft on defense. Sen. Tim Hutchinson, R-Ark., calls the case "symptomatic of the casual attitude with which the Clinton administration views issues of national security." Others want to blame it on Chinese contributions to the Democrats. McCain, for example, demands an investigation of "the allegations about technology transfer [and] all these campaign contributions that came out of China."

Nor have conservatives figured out whether to blame Democrats in general or Clinton in particular. Many have grown more disgusted with Clinton's triangulations than with congressional Democrats' straightforward liberalism. "The Clinton China policy from the first has been subsumed into the permanent campaign," says the Wall Street Journal, citing objections to that policy "from Democrats and Republicans alike." Moreover, given the political damage the GOP has suffered by unilaterally impeaching Clinton, Republican leaders fear that the merits of their arguments will once again be drowned by charges of partisanship. Sure enough, this week Clinton spokesman Joe Lockhart accused the GOP of using the spy case for "partisan point-scoring."

To beat the partisanship rap, several Republican leaders are invoking Democrats as their allies against Clinton. House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, cites "a growing unrest" over China "on both sides of the aisle," and House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas, accuses Clinton of trying to "cover up" Congress' "bipartisan" findings of laxity in Clinton's China policy. When ABC's George Will tried to goad Rep. Chris Cox, R-Calif., into blaming Democrats for suppressing those findings, Cox shot him down: "It is not a Democratic party position, because Democrats and Republicans have worked very closely together on this issue."

If Clinton's approach to world affairs has been aimless and inconsistent, assailing his China policy from all directions is hardly the way to make that point. The opposite of inconsistency is principle. And the GOP has yet to figure out what its principle is.