When it comes to misleading the American public, it's hard to top the Clinton administration.
To understand this, it's worth exploring in detail the facts and nuances underlying one aspect of the president's visit to China--namely, what he said and did concerning Taiwan.
Last week, during his stopover in Shanghai, Clinton made what was the most important presidential pronouncement on American policy toward Taiwan in more than 15 years.
He gave the imprimatur of the presidency to what are sometimes called, in shorthand, the "3 no's." He said the United States will not support independence for Taiwan; any solution that creates "two Chinas"--or one China and one Taiwan; or its admission to organizations, such as the United Nations.
Ever since, the president and his aides have been insisting that this was nothing new. All Clinton did, they contend, was to restate long-standing American policy dating back to the Nixon administration.
Is that accurate? Let's look at the facts and the background.
Taiwan independence. True, no American president has come out for an independent Taiwan, and several administrations have given private assurances to China that they would not do so. What Clinton said, however, amounts to an unprecedented presidential commitment, made on Chinese soil, that ties American policy more tightly than ever before.
No two Chinas; or one China, one Taiwan. This may sound, at first, like old hat from the Nixon era. It's not; the reality is more complex.
In the Shanghai Communique issued during Nixon's historic trip in 1972, the United States did not embrace a one-China policy. The language was weaker. The communique said the United States "acknowledges that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is part of China. The United States government does not challenge that position."
Remember the context. At the time, Taiwan was led by Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, who claimed his government represented the Chinese mainland. In other words, Taiwan, like Beijing, had a "one-China" policy. (A decade later, the United States more clearly endorsed a one-China policy, but this too came at a time when Taiwan's regime sought to govern the mainland.)
Since then, Taiwan has changed. Its government no longer claims authority over China. And it has become a functioning democracy. Thus, Clinton's words were stronger than Nixon's communique, and were made in a situation, different from the Nixon era, in which Taiwan no longer claims to be part of China.
U.N. membership. Taipei lost its U.N. seat to Beijing in 1971, when both governments claimed there should be a single China seat. Again, the situation has changed. Five years ago, Taiwan began seeking a separate U.N. seat from China's. The United States has never backed Taiwan's efforts, but Clinton's statement amounts to a new presidential commitment foreclosing that possibility.
The administration has been boasting that it didn't go further. It didn't put the "3 no's" into writing, as China would have liked. That's like a teenager saying he had an accident but the car wasn't totaled.
In recent days, White House spinmeisters circulated a statement in which Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui minimized the importance of what Clinton had said. But Lee has just as strong an interest as the Clinton administration in insisting that nothing happened. He doesn't want his people to take umbrage, or for China to take Clinton's words as definitive.
For a more dispassionate interpretation, listen to Harry Harding of George Washington University, one of America's most recognized experts on China.
Two weeks ago, when the administration organized a White House briefing about China for the press, Harding was one of two scholars it presented. Yet Harding said Tuesday he thinks "there is some legitimate concern [in] Taiwan that the United States is prejudging the outcome" of future talks between Beijing and Taipei.
The United States shouldn't specifically endorse the reunification of China and Taiwan, Harding said. "I think we should be open-ended," he explained. "We should say we hope for a peaceful solution on terms acceptable to both sides."
The administration's claim that Clinton merely restated "long-standing" American policy is based in part on the fact that, over the previous eight months, lower-level officials had uttered words similar to Clinton's.
If "long-standing" means eight months, the administration is telling the truth. Before the summit held by Clinton and Chinese President Jiang Zemin in Washington last October, Chinese officials tried to persuade the administration to put the "3 no's" into writing.
Administration officials refused to do so. But within days after the summit, State Department spokesman Jamie P. Rubin offered the first public rendition by any U.S. official of the "3 no's." Secretary of State Madeleine Albright followed suit in April. And in the days before Clinton's pronouncement, National Security Advisor Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger said the same thing twice.
In short, the administration put in a lot of effort preparing the way, so that what was said last week wouldn't sound new. The bottom line, however, is that no president had ever said what Clinton said in Shanghai.
Jim Mann's column appears in this space every Wednesday.