President Bush has announced that, despite China's violent crackdowns on dissent in Tibet and its support for the brutal dictatorships of Sudan and Burma, he will attend next month's opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics.
In response, Barack Obama distinguished himself from the man he seeks to replace.
Asked whether he, as president, would convey legitimacy on the Chinese government's recent actions by attending the opening ceremonies, Obama said, "In the absence of some sense of progress, in the absence of some sense from the Dalai Lama that there was progress, I would not have gone."
This was not Obama's first statement regarding Tibet or the Dalai Lama, who this week is in Wisconsin as part of a visit to the United States.
In a foreign policy address delivered in March, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee member said that the advancement of human rights must be a central U.S. priority. And he pointedly declared, "We can start now by speaking out for the human rights and religious freedom of the people of Tibet."
Around the same time, Obama announced, "If Tibetans are to live in harmony with the rest of China's people, their religion and culture must be respected and protected. Tibet should enjoy genuine and meaningful autonomy."
While Obama's election would represent a clear break with the compromised commitments of the Bush administration -- and of the Clinton administration before it -- the jury is still out on Republican John McCain.
Without a doubt, McCain is more sensitive to concerns regarding China's human rights abuses than Bush. This spring, when the Chinese crackdown in Tibet turned particularly violent, the senator from Arizona issued an excellent statement.
"I deplore the violent crackdown by Chinese authorities and the continuing oppression in Tibet of those merely wishing to practice their faith and preserve their culture and heritage. I have listened carefully to the Dalai Lama and am convinced he is a man of peace who reflects the hopes and aspirations of Tibetans. I urge the government of the People's Republic of China to address the root causes of unrest in Tibet by opening a genuine dialogue with his holiness, the Dalai Lama, aimed at granting greater autonomy."
At the time, McCain suggested that he might also boycott the opening ceremonies as a protest against Beijing's policies.
In recent months, however, McCain has been increasingly critical of Obama's emphasis on diplomacy and respecting human rights when it comes to international affairs. When Bush announced he would attend the opening ceremonies, McCain made no formal move to condemn the decision.
While Obama has been firmer in his embrace of human rights, McCain's past statements suggest a consciousness of what is at stake in the dispute over China's treatment of Tibet that runs far broader than that evidenced by George Bush or Bill Clinton during their presidencies.
As such, though Bush's decision to attend the opening ceremonies is both disappointing and embarrassing, 2008 might yet be the year when America moves from the shadow of complicity into the sunlight of a more genuine commitment to human rights.
John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times, Wisconsin's progressive daily online news source, where his column appears regularly.