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Friday, June 20, 2008

Tribute to the good sense of a brighter Bush

LOS ANGELES — We in the West are always grateful and utterly relieved when East Asians manage to take significant steps away from the risk of serious conflict.

The fact is that we in the United States are more than capable of blundering into our own unnecessary wars without wishing to see others do the same. Instead of adding to our burdens, the relative prudence of East Asia — when its nation-states are at their diplomatic best — allows us to concentrate on the pursuit of our current follies without having to subsidize or defend anyone else's.

And so we proffer our immense gratitude and congratulations to the savvy folks in Beijing and Taipei who are mending cross-strait ways with some old-fashioned straight talk about their relationship.

This week alone, after just the first official meeting between Beijing and Taipei in years — and on the heels of the recent landslide election of a sensibly less anti-mainland government in Taiwan — the two sides put into motion measures to rev up air flights between them and to increase tourism and trade.

We like this a lot. We especially like the air deal that looks to eat away at decades-old restrictions on direct cross-strait flights. We know that the Chinese thought that we Westerners just loved having to fly hours out of our way — via minipolar routes with stopovers in Macau, Seoul, Tokyo or Hong Kong — just to get from Taipei to Beijing. Pedestrian as it may seem, flying directly across the Taiwan Strait between the two capitals is the more sensible way to go.

Pedestrian, sensible, even "sense and sensibility" (title of the famous Jane Austen novel) seem like the best words for the moment to describe emerging China-Taiwan relations. They also are the best words to describe a new book about China and Taiwan that probably won't get the attention it deserves: "The China Diary of George H.W. Bush."

The diarist is in fact someone who also hasn't gotten quite the attention he deserves: the one-term U.S. president preceding the noisy two terms of Bill Clinton, now known as "Bill the Bully," as well as the nonillustrious two terms of his son, George W. Bush, increasingly known as "Bush the Lesser."

Just published by Princeton University Press, "China Diary" is one of the most sensible perspectives on China ever written by a powerful U.S. figure. It is balanced, prescient and helpful. During the one year (October 1974 to December 1975) that George H.W. Bush served as the chief U.S. representative in Beijing, the future president thoughtfully jotted down his experiences and worries about the all-important U.S.-China relationship. The jottings have now been strung together into a coherent diary — with deft commentaries — by Jeffrey A. Engel, an up-and-coming assistant professor at the Bush School of Government and Public Policy in Texas.

The result is a quite readable, most likable and oft-illuminating set of yearlong musings about China and the U.S., about international diplomacy and personal diplomacy, and about the hated Henry Kissinger, then secretary of State. There's also quite a lot about tennis, barbecues, bad Beijing weather, the occasional drunken American congressmen and — once in awhile — "a good-looking woman."

The senior Bush is no kiss-and-tell author. His style is more like shake-hands-and-try-to-hide- the-repulsion. Secretary Kissinger's egomaniacal, paranoid style of foreign-policy management is not so much roasted as ironically toasted, damned with faint praise more often than raked over the coals. Frankly, it's often fun to read.

Bush the Smarter, between his stint in Beijing and in New York as U.N. ambassador, emerges as the true American internationalist.

He supports the need for international institutions, careful multinational consensus-building and endless efforts to reach out with personal diplomacy. Rather than relying on Kissinger's secretive and Machiavellian approach, his preferred philosophy is more that of his mother's, which he describes this way:

"Be kind. Don't be a big shot. Listen, don't talk. Reach out to people. [It] doesn't have to do anything with diplomacy; it has to do with life. Treat people with respect and recognize in diplomatic terms that the sovereignty [of the tiniest state] is as important to them as sovereignty is [to us]." Slightly different scale, I might add. But nevertheless this is just a value thing.

This isn't any great diplomatic study from the Fletcher School or something. This is just the way you react to things."

At the end of the successful Persian Gulf War, Bush the Brighter came under relentless pressure from high echelons of the British ruling class to invade Baghdad and behead Saddam Hussein. But one of America's best foreign-policy presidents ever refused the bait.

Reading "China Diary" offers a sense of why this man was not for blundering. It turns out he learned a whole lot from the Chinese and from fellow diplomats at the United Nations. But it may be that he learned the best lessons from his mother. May she rest in peace.

UCLA professor and journalist Tom Plate personally interviewed George H.W. Bush privately once, when he was vice president. © 2008 Tom Plate

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