At his press conference this morning, President Bush was asked what is lost by speaking to foreign leaders with whom we disagree.

He immediately replied,

“What is lost by embracing a tyrant who puts his people in prison because of their political beliefs? What is lost is it’ll send the wrong message. It’ll send a discouraging message to those who wonder if America will continue to work for the freedom of prisoners. It will give great status to those who have suppressed human rights and human dignity.”

It’s nice to see our President expressing support for human rights, but he’s uneven at best in his policies and attacks on countries that regularly violate human dignity. He correctly has harsh words for the Castro brothers in Cuba, but that’s not the only communist regime that persecutes its own people.

China, one of the most oppressive nations on Earth, will host the Summer Olympics this year in Beijing. President Bush is not only allowing American athletes to compete, he’ll also attend. The Games will be a major public relations coup for China, with American and other world media sure to downplay the political prisoners, the pollution, and the lack of free access to information (for example, the vast majority of Chinese citizens have never heard of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, because the media, internet providers, and publishers are forbidden to mention it). Even if that oppression is covered, it will be dwarfed by hundreds of hours of the usual NBC crap about the pageantry and beauty of the Olympics host city.

Olivier Knox of Agence-France Presse asked Bush about this:

“In China, a former factory worker who says that human rights are more important than the Olympics is being tried for subversion. What message does it send that you’re going to the Olympics, and do you think athletes there should be able to publicly express their dissent?”

Bush replied,

“I made it very clear I’m going to the Olympics because it’s a sporting event, and I’m looking forward to seeing the athletic competition. But that will not preclude me from meeting with the Chinese president and expressing my deep concerns about a variety of issues, just like I do every time I meet with the president.” He said he’d talk about religious freedom, Darfur, Iran, and Burma, and added, “I’m not the least bit shy bringing up the concerns expressed by this factory worker, and I believe that I’ll have an opportunity to do so with the president, and at the same time, enjoy a great sporting event. I’m a sports fan. I’m looking forward to the competition.”

So, he’ll talk about it behind closed doors, but won’t make a big deal out of it publicly — because, despite the ongoing human rights violations in China, Bush doesn’t want to endanger the marketplace for American products that’s opening there. If human rights are for sale in return for free trade and some televised track and field and gymnastics events — which they clearly are, and have been under previous administrations as well — why is it okay to deal with the despots in Beijing, but not Havana?

Bush concluded his answer with this comment, almost as a throw away: “Each Olympic society will make its own decision as to how to deal with the athletes.”

Sorry, but that’s not strong enough. Here’s what he should have said: “Athletes from this nation and any other, as well as all people on this planet, should never feel restrained in speaking out against oppression and human rights violations, wherever they may occur.”

Reporters covering the campaigns of John McCain, Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton should press them on this issue. Will they take a hardline stance for freedom?

Let’s also remember that some of those human rights travesties are allowed to happen every day in Saudi Arabia, which doesn’t stop Bush from embracing and holding hands with his good friend King Abdullah…