WASHINGTON – For President Bush, it would seem a small gesture to make a big point: Staying away from the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Summer Olympics would send a clear signal of U.S. anger over China's crackdown against anti-Beijing Tibetan protesters.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and German Chancellor Angela Merkel will not attend the opening ceremonies. John McCain, the Republican senator Bush has endorsed as his successor, says he would go only if China improved its rights record. And the two Democratic presidential candidates, Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton, are urging Bush to miss the ceremonies.
Yet Bush is giving no indication he will skip the event. Too much may be at stake for him to do so.
Any Olympic protest by the United States would deeply offend a proud Beijing leadership that hopes the games will show China's emergence as a new world power. It also would run the risk of hindering a host of international efforts the Bush administration needs China's help to solve, including efforts to confront Myanmar's military junta and North Korean and apparently Iranian nuclear programs. China holds a veto on the U.N. Security Council, and the U.S. and Chinese economies, as well as many of the countries' political efforts around the world, are increasingly intertwined.
Pressed repeatedly by reporters this week, the White House said Bush is attending the Olympics but would not announce his specific schedule so far ahead of the games, which begin Aug. 8. The administration did not rule out the possibility of Bush missing the opening ceremonies.
On Friday, Bush repeated his position that the Olympics are for sports, not politics. He told ABC News that his decision to attend the games is not affected by pleas from activists who want world leaders to skip the opening ceremony to protest violence in Tibet. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says the United States will "press the Chinese on human rights issues before, during and after these upcoming Olympic Games."
Bush maintains his presence at the games will allow him to raise human rights problems directly with Chinese President Hu Jintao while watching the best athletes in the world compete.
That position could change if Beijing were to stage a crackdown reminiscent of the one against pro-democracy protesters at Tiananmen Square in 1989.
But Michael Green, Bush's former Asia adviser, says the president probably will attend the opening ceremonies.
"The problem with a boycott is you end up taking 1.3 billion Chinese — who have different views of democracy, of the U.S., of human rights, but all want the Olympics to be successful — and you turn them all against the U.S.," said Green, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank. "It's a crude and blunt instrument to just boycott."
Bush, he added, is "stubborn when he thinks he's got the right decision."
Green said he thinks the administration is using decisions by world leaders to skip the opening ceremonies to push Beijing to work with the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader who Beijing accuses of pushing for independence from China.
On Friday, Rice again urged China to talk with the Dalai Lama. "China would really do itself a great service, and not to mention the people of Tibet, if it were willing to have a more open attitude toward responsible Tibetan cultural and religious authorities," she said.
Bush has been outspoken in his support of the Dalai Lama and presented the monk with a Congressional Gold Medal last year over strong Chinese protests.
But U.S. lawmakers are urging Bush to take a stand on Tibet at the Olympics.
Clinton and two other Democratic senators sent Bush a letter this week saying the crackdown in Tibet "should be unacceptable to anyone who believes in basic human freedoms."
Bush's attendance of the opening ceremonies, they wrote, "would send the implicit message to the world that the United State condones the intolerance that has been demonstrated by these actions of the Chinese government."
China is working hard to contain violence in Tibet ahead of the games. It has sent thousands of police and army troops to the region to maintain an edgy peace, hunt down protest leaders and cordon off Buddhist monasteries whose monks led protests that began peacefully on March 10 before turning violent four days later.
Victor Cha, director of Asian studies at Georgetown University and another former White House adviser, said Bush is a "sports purist" who sees "the games as sport only, not politics."
"He will go and will not call for a boycott," Cha said in an e-mail.