When Presidents Defend the Indefensible: Comparing George H.W. Bush’s Handling of U.S. China Policy after the Tiananmen Crackdown with Trump’s Saudi Challenge Today

The recent passing of President George H.W. Bush threw into stark relief the contrasts between the internationalist foreign policy of the elder Bush and the “America First” approach of current President Donald Trump. Yet most observers have overlooked important parallels between the foreign policy preferences of these two Republican presidents.

Consider the dovetailing of Bush’s death with the explosive debate between President Trump and Congressional leaders over U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia. Following reports about Saudi involvement in the grisly murder of exiled Saudi journalist Jamaal Khashoggi, as well as the increasingly dire humanitarian disaster in Yemen, the Senate passed a bipartisan resolution rebuking Saudi leaders over the killing of Khashoggi and withdrawing U.S. military assistance for Saudi intervention in the Yemeni civil war. The resolution marked a rare Congressional invocation of the 1973 War Powers Act, through which the Congress, following the Vietnam debacle, sought to reestablish control over the commitment of military forces abroad. While the House leadership declined to bring the resolution to a vote, Congressional efforts to place constraints on U.S. cooperation with Saudi Arabia are expected to resume with the seating of the new Congress.

For his part, President Trump rushed to defend Saudi leaders, including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whom many suspect of ordering the Khashoggi murder, and to preserve strong ties with America’s long-time Persian Gulf ally. This clash between the president and the Congress over U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia calls to mind George H.W. Bush’s battles with the Congress over U.S. China policy in the wake of the Tiananmen massacre of June 4, 1989, a case about which I have written. Both presidents placed strategic and economic interests over human rights concerns in dealing with authoritarian governments under fire for brutal methods. Facing Congressional revolt against such coldly calculating realism, both Bush and Trump sought to beat back challenges to executive branch prerogatives in the management of U.S. foreign policy.

But while Bush and Trump shared a common desire to overlook human rights where close ties with embattled authoritarian regimes served perceived American interests, they differed in their approach to fending off Congressional challenges. Trump has parroted Saudi Arabia’s every-changing and unconvincing explanations for Khashoggi’s death while citing lucrative arms sales as a reason to avoid a rupture in relations with the Kingdom.

Bush’s realist rationale for seeking to preserve U.S. ties with China was not dissimilar to that of Trump today, but Bush sought to avoid a straight-up clash with idealist defenders of human rights. Instead, he attempted, with considerable success, to control the framing of the Tiananmen issue in ways that blunted Congressional interference and limited the negative impact on U.S.-China relations. In contrast, Trump’s less politically adroit handling of Congressional anger over the Khashoggi incident leaves the future of U.S. ties with the Saudi royal family in question.

Revisiting the Tiananmen Crackdown

On June 4, 1989, the Chinese leadership violently crushed a months-long pro-democracy demonstration led by students in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. Thousands of people lost their lives in Beijing and other urban areas and many more were arrested or fled into exile.

While the media and Congressional leaders of both parties condemned the Tiananmen Square massacre and immediately called for punitive measures aimed at Beijing, Bush and his aides adopted a very different tone. Secretary of State James Baker suggested: “it would appear that there maybe was some violence on both sides” and cautioned against interfering with the domestic affairs of other countries. Bush himself rejected sanctions or the recall of the U.S. Ambassador to China, instead counseling Americans: “Now is the time to look beyond the moment to important and enduring aspects of this vital relationship for the United States.”

Bush’s reaction stemmed from his realist approach to international affairs – acquired at the feet of former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger – which prized order over justice and feared the international consequences of a China’s potential descent into domestic instability.

Congressional critics, by contrast, emphasized the need for American to stand up for human rights, lambasting Bush for coddling what Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi called the “butchers of Beijing.” A strong shift in public opinion against China, especially among Chinese-Americans, no doubt also encouraged Congressional pushback against Bush’s conciliatory policy toward China.

As the debate unfolded, Bush faced three main Congressional challenges to his control over U.S. China policy. Critics in the Congress sought to 1. impose punitive sanctions on China, 2. extend the visas of Chinese students (many of whom had supported the Tiananmen demonstrations) currently studying in the U.S. and 3. withhold Most Favored Nation (MFN) trade status for Chinese exports to the U.S. Bush was forced to compromise on the first two challenges, but won an outright victory in the contest over China’s MFN status.

Bush quickly concluded that he would lose a debate that turned squarely upon a clash between his own realist perspective and the idealist, human rights views of many opponents. Passions were too high for realism to gain traction under such circumstances. Instead, Bush reframed each of the three above choices in ways that preserved his own flexibility and blunted the negative impacts on U.S.-China relations.


In the sanctions case, Bush accepted his opponents’ objective of democratizing China, but argued that engagement rather than sanctions offered the best route to that end: “As people have commercial incentives, whether it’s in China or in other totalitarian countries, the move to democracy becomes inexorable.” This appeal robbed Bush’s critics of a clear target and stole some of their moral thunder by transforming the debate into one over means, not ends.

When it became clear that the Congress would, nevertheless, pass a strong sanctions bill with a veto-proof majority, Bush abandoned efforts to thwart the move, instead pushing Congress to include provisions allowing the president flexibility in implementing sanctions. This shifted the argument into one about the proper role of the executive and the legislature in managing U.S. foreign policy. Bush made the case that Congressional action is a blunt tool that can hamstring the presidents’ ability to respond to changing circumstances.

Congress typically defers to such reasoning by inserting waiver provisions in sanctions legislation. The House bill indeed granted the president the prerogative to waive sanctions if he determined it in “the national security interest” of the U.S. to do so. The Senate bill, by contrast, substituted the term “national interest” for “national security interest.”

Bush preferred the looser Senate language since, as one State Department official proclaimed, the “national interest” loophole was so gaping that “you can defi­nitely drive a Boeing 757 through” Indeed, after the conference committee passed final legislation with the Senate language, Bush proceeded to use the “national interest” waiver provision to allow the sale of Boeing aircraft, along with much else, to China. Within a year of the Tiananmen crackdown, Bush had gutted the practical impact of sanctions through such means.

The Pelosi Bill

The Pelosi Bill offered extended visas for the 40,000 Chinese students studying in the U.S. This was a popular move since many of the students had spoken out in favor of the Tiananmen demonstrations and feared punishment should they be forced to return home. Bush had no desire to expose the Chinese students to harm, but he did worry about the reaction of Chinese leaders to the humiliation they would associate with enactment of such legislation. Indeed, China threatened to cut off all student exchanges if the Pelosi Bill became law.

The Chinese also indicated that they would find an executive order offering equivalent protection to the students less objectionable than a law. An executive order, after all, could be easily reversed by the president while a law could not. Bush in fact offered to issue an executive order if the Pelosi Bill were rejected by the Congress.

Instead, the first version of the bill passed unanimously in the House and suffered only a single nay vote in the Senate. The chances that Bush would prevail appeared dismal. In early December 1989, however, the White House revealed that Deputy Secretary of State Larence Eagleberger and National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft were then meeting with Chinese leaders in Beijing. While in Beijing, Scowcroft assured Chinese leaders that he and his entourage had “come as friends” and added that “we extend our hand in friendship and hope that you will do the same.” A week later, CNN reported that Scowcroft and Eagleberger had travelled secretly to China the previous July, at a time when the Bush Administration had proclaimed a ban on high-level contacts with Chinese officials.

These revelations brought swift condemnations from Democratic Congressional leaders. Sensing an opening, Bush mounted an extensive lobbying effort aimed at Senate Republicans centered on the message that the Democrats had now turned the Pelosi Bill into a partisan issue and were trying to weaken Republicans heading into the mid-term elections by handing Bush a humiliating loss.

This gambit paid off. In the end, thirty seven Republican Senators reversed course by voting to uphold Bush’s veto of the Pelosi Bill. Shifting the frame from one focused on the humanitarian needs of the Chinese students to one that highlighted the partisan stakes at issue allowed Bush to limit the damage to U.S.-China ties and avoid conceding executive prerogatives to the Congress.

Most Favored Nation (MFN) Status

The third, and the most important in terms of its potential political and economic impact, debate concerned Congressional efforts to withdraw Most Favored Nation (MFN) trade status from China. Without MFN, U.S. tariffs on goods imported from China would rise to prohibitive levels, thus undermining one of the emerging pillars of U.S.-China cooperation.

The debate focused less on whether to renew MFN than the question of whether MFN should be conditioned upon various Chinese steps to improve human rights. In 1991 and 1992, both the House and the Senate passed – with large majorities – bills that would have withdrawn MFN status unless strict conditions were met. In both years, Bush’s veto of these anti-MFN bills was narrowly upheld in the Senate.

Bush’s lobbying strategy, while it failed to change the minds of roughly 85% of the members of Congress, succeeded in assembling a blocking minority in the Senate by emphasizing the economic costs of severing U.S.-China trade ties. Bush worked closely with private sector lobbyists, including those representing the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the U.S.-China Business Council and the National Association of Manufacturers. The White House and business lobbyists reminded Senators that the withdrawal of MFN status would likely prompt Chinese retaliation against U.S. exports of wheat, soybeans and aircraft to China. These appeals held special force with Senators from states that depended upon exports to China.

In 1991, for instance, Bush gained the support of seven Democratic Senators from farm states that exported heavily to China. Two Republican Senators from Oregon, a state that depended upon timber exports to China, also voted to uphold Bush’s veto. Although majorities in both chambers supported strict MFN conditions, Bush’s focus on commercial interests and the White House’s coordination with business groups made a crucial difference at the margin. While giving some ground in the debates over sanctions and the Pelosi Bill, Bush’s MFN victories preserved an economic relationship that blossomed in later years to become critical to both countries. Bush’s efforts also sent a clear signal to Beijing that human rights abuses and authoritarianism would not serve as insuperable obstacles to China’s growing integration into the U.S.-led international order.

Defending the Indefensible

Like Bush before him, Trump seeks to ward off Congressional measures that would strain U.S.-Saudi ties and cut off U.S. support for Saudi military intervention in Yemen. Also like Bush, Trump is in the unenviable position of defending the indefensible. In both cases, Bush and Trump were concerned not only to preserve relations with autocratic states guilty of human rights abuses, they also sought to defend unimpeded presidential control over U.S. foreign policy from Congressional interference.

Without considering the merits of his position, it is evident that Bush’s deft political maneuvering blunted Congressional demands by shifting the debate’s frame away from the ideological ground that favored his opponents to institutional, partisan and commercial frames that played to his own advantage. Whether the (putative) author of The Art of the Deal is capable of such tactical adroitness remains to be seen.


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