In recent days, many have sought to contrast President Trump with President George H.W. Bush. But there is one area where Trump is channeling his inner Bush — and not in a good way. His response to the murder and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi in a Saudi consulate echoes Bush’s handling of China’s crackdown on peaceful democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square.
We only recently learned how ruthless that Chinese crackdown really was, when a secret 1989 cable by Britain’s then-ambassador to China, Sir Alan Donald, was declassified. Student protesters were crushed by armored personnel carriers, which rolled over their bodies repeatedly until their pulverized remains were collected by bulldozer, incinerated, and hosed down drains, the document said. “Wounded girl students begged for their lives but were bayoneted,” Donald wrote. “A 3-year-old girl was injured, but her mother was shot as she went to her aid, as were six others.” One thousand survivors of the initial assault were told they could leave “but were then mown down by specially prepared MG [machine gun] positions.”
The cable ends with this chilling sentence: "Minimum estimate of civilian dead 10,000."
China’s murderous brutality put Bush in an impossible position: He had to uphold American values while at the same time preserving a critical relationship with the men who carried out these horrific crimes. It is much the same quandary that Trump has faced in the wake of Khashoggi’s murder. Like Bush, Trump was faced with an inhuman act of violence that shocked the conscience of the nation. Like Bush, Trump had to impose consequences on the regime while balancing U.S. national interests in a critical part of the world. And like Bush, Trump has handled the situation poorly.
Bush was unapologetic about his outreach to Chinese leaders after the massacre in June 1989. “What I certainly did not want to do was completely break the relationship we had worked so hard to build since 1972,” Bush later wrote. “While angry rhetoric might be temporarily satisfying to some, I believed it would deeply hurt our efforts in the long term.” At the time, Bush lashed out in his diary at congressional leaders who wanted him to take a harder line, including Rep. Stephen Solarz (D., N.Y.), whom he called “the kind of guy that was delighted about the overthrow of the shah, not worrying about what follows on.”
He sent a cringeworthy letter to Deng Xiaoping in which he called the Chinese leader his “genuine ‘lao pengyou’” (old friend) and apologized for the punitive measures his administration had taken. “The actions that I took as President of the United States could not be avoided,” Bush wrote, “as you know, the clamor for stronger action remains intense. I have resisted that clamor, making clear that I did not want to see destroyed this relationship that you and I have worked hard to build.” Worse, Bush sent national security adviser Brent Scowcroft to Beijing, where he was photographed cordially clinking wine glasses with Chinese leaders at a state banquet.
Bush was right that the relationship had to be preserved. The opening to China was critical to peacefully ending the Cold War. But his eagerness to placate Chinese leaders, and his reticence in condemning those who committed such horrific crimes, harmed America's moral standing in the world.
Today, when it comes to Saudi Arabia, Trump is — like Bush — in an impossible position. The U.S. must stand for human rights. But it must also preserve its relationship with Saudi Arabia, the only nation in the Middle East that can serve as a bulwark against Iran, the main strategic threat to U.S. interests in the region. Trump has tried to balance these conflicting responsibilities by imposing sanctions on 17 Saudis under the Global Magnitsky Act and declaring Khashoggi’s murder “an unacceptable and horrible crime” — while refusing to publicly blame Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for ordering it. He has correctly determined that the crown prince is not going anywhere and that a permanent breach with Riyadh is unacceptable. But the unapologetic way in which he has gone about it — touting how much we make from Saudi arms purchases while Secretary of State Mike Pompeo castigates critics in Congress and the media for “caterwauling” — has been unseemly.
One of the toughest challenges of the presidency is upholding American values while dealing with pro-American tyrants. Few presidents have done it well. In this sense, Trump is no different from his predecessors. We don’t know what Trump’s back-channel communications with the Saudi leadership have been like — perhaps he has been tougher in private than public. But we do know this much: They can’t be any worse than Bush’s plaintive entreaties to the butchers of Beijing.