There is no time for Bush to hang the opening ceremonies out in front of the Chinese to coax them through a number of complicated political jumps. July is far too late to make US attendance at the August ceremony an incentive for Chinese policy reform. Whatever steps taken in the one month interim would be hasty and unlikely to outlast the Olympic Games. Moreover, no clear benchmarks exist to determine whether China has been "good" enough for Bush to view the opening ceremonies. Just how much progress in Tibet is needed to demonstrate commitment to change and clear Bush of perceptions of complicity? The complaints pelted at China, while often valid, are far too complex to be meaningfully addressed before the Olympic Flame is lit.
If not as a carrot, attendance at the opening games can only be used as a stick. As a stick, however, the Olympic Games are an inaccurate and ineffective weapon. Given China's face-based ethic, an embarrassing public punishment will incite more anger than contrition. When protests erupted in France along the torch relay, thousands of Chinese launched counter-protests and boycotted French goods. Were President Bush to skip the opening games, this fierce nationalism would be bolstered by perceptions that the West is "ganging up" to undermine Chinese success.
Now is not the time to feed anti-American sentiment. The United States needs Chinese cooperation on too many issues to skip their coming out party: within China, Americans hope to secure more freedom for Tibet and Taiwan; abroad, we need Chinese assistance to make progress in North Korea's Six Party Talks, put sufficient pressure on leaders in Sudan and Zimbabwe, and devise a cogent response to global warming. These problems will require long-term, careful collaboration with the Chinese government, not petty insults launched at the urgings of pop activists.
Neither attendance at the opening ceremonies nor participation in the Olympic Games tacitly condones Chinese policy. For the Chinese, the Olympics celebrate a long struggle for international recognition as a developed, modern nation. Bush can affirm this sentiment without an absolute approval of China's actions; in fact, he ought use full participation in China's coming of age ceremony to goad its leaders into accepting the obligations that accompany power. Bush has the opportunity to refuse the politicization of the Olympics, attending in a gesture of good will that will clear the table for constructive give and take with China's leaders.
Refusing one means to address a problem does not require the total abandonment of other solutions. When heart surgeons choose scalpels over baseball bats for combatting heart attacks, we don't accuse them of complicity with cholesterol. Skipping the opening ceremonies is a blunt and short-sighted response to a series of complex problems. An equally firm-handed but more subtle diplomacy will be enjoy much greater success and avoid fracturing relations with a country whose actions will influence the lives of Americans and others more and more.