Olympic torch burns US candidates
Torch protests have turned a Beijing boycott into an election issue, says Alexander Cockburn
Looking for the Olympic torch in San Francisco on Wednesday was every bit as uncertain as a snark hunt and, by the end of a bleak day for Chinese dignity, the likelihood of a US boycott of the opening ceremony in Beijing in August had markedly increased.
San Francisco was selected for transit by the torch on its tumultuous journey from democracy's cradle to the people's republic because the city has many Chinese. No doubt the majority of these turned out to cheer for the motherland, but the Bay Area also holds many passionate supporters of Tibet's rights.
The trans-Pacific China trade is a very significant factor in California's economy and Gavin Newsom, the city's mayor, supervised an intricate plan to avoid any embarrassment. After landing at San Francisco airport the torch appeared briefly at an opening ceremony, then scuttled into a warehouse and was rushed off in a car, away from a scheduled event on the Embarcadero where protesters had gathered.
It popped up again on the other side of the city, near the Golden Gate bridge, where relay runners carried it south, back towards the airport. One such bearer, 41-year old Majora Carter, whipped a small Tibetan flag from her sleeve, but was swiftly pounced upon by San Francisco cops.
Soon the torch was airborne. Mayor Newsom wiped the sweat from his brow and the Chinese press said the torch's San Francisco touch-down had been "a harmonious journey". This was an overly rosy assessment since Barack Obama chose that same day to inch closer to his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton's call upon President Bush to boycott the opening ceremonies.
Obama said that a boycott "should be firmly on the table" but that a decision should be made closer to the Games. "If the Chinese do not take steps to help stop the genocide in Darfur and to respect the dignity, security and human rights of the Tibetan people, then the president should boycott the opening ceremonies."
The Republican nominee, John McCain, has thus far been playing for time, caught between popular dislike for China and the fact that a Republican president, George Bush Jr., has declared that sports and politics are differing realms. McCain's spokesman says his boss condemns "the brutal oppression" of Tibet, and advises the president to "keep his options open".
But that's a fence-straddling posture which McCain, eager to burnish his reputation as a straight-talking, two-fisted kind of guy, will find hard to maintain. If he finds it politically necessary to call on Bush to avoid Beijing this August and go off to Texas and ride his mountain bike instead, the President will be in an awkward spot. Bush, a big sports fan, yearns to go to Beijing. Such outings are among the few pleasures left for a deeply unpopular president who will at that point be four months shy of retirement.
Pious talk from the White House about keeping sports and politics apart will certainly raise a snigger in the Kremlin, whose denizens will remember that in 1980 President Jimmy Carter led an international campaign which in the end prompted 62 nations - including the US, West Germany and Israel - to boycott the Olympics in Moscow because the previous year the Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan.
In 1984, a year after the US had invaded Grenada, the Olympics were held in Los Angeles. No Western nation felt the need to boycott, though Russia and 13 of its allies did stay away, citing only "security concerns".
The official position of the US government has long been that Tibet is part of China. Cheap goods from China sold through Wal-Mart and other chains are a vital prop for lower-income Americans reeling at the inflation in the price of fuel, milk and other essentials.
A boycott by Bush could lead to reprisals by a furious Chinese leadership, which could make life difficult for the US in any number of ways. Life is not as simple as it was in 1980, though John McCain appears to think otherwise. ·
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