So, the vice president goes to China—and if that sounds like the beginning of a bad comedy routine, it’s because our current vice president has made it one. The man is a walking pratfall, a clown of the tongue-tied, stumbling kind, and only the media’s determined effort to shield the Obama administration from laughter has kept Joe Biden’s miscues, misunderstandings, and mispronouncements from becoming our long-running national joke.

He began the month of August, for example, by boasting to reporters that he had greeted congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords’s return to Washington by mentioning his own pair of craniotomies: “I said, ‘Now we’re both members of the Cracked Head Club.’ ” The cracked-head club. This, to a woman bravely making her first appearance in the U.S. Congress after a crazed assassin tried to kill her in January.

And then he tripped off to China, where he somehow felt compelled to tell his audience, “Your policy has been one which I fully understand—I’m not second-guessing—of one child per family. The result being that you’re in a position where one wage earner will be taking care of four retired people. Not sustainable.”

Fully understanding, is Joe Biden, of the brutal regime of mandatory abortions and sterilization quotas by which China has imposed its “family planning policy” since 1978. Not second-guessing, is our vice president, of the means by which a Communist government has attempted to crush the rural peasants it has always viewed as a threat to Beijing’s control.

In the days since Biden’s August 21 comments at Sichuan University, the White House has tried to walk it all back. “The Obama administration strongly opposes all aspects of China’s coercive birth limitation policies, including forced abortion and sterilization,” read a statement from Biden’s spokeswoman Kendra Barkoff. “The vice president believes such practices are repugnant.”

Indeed, his supporters argue, Biden was actually criticizing the one child policy by saying it was “not sustainable” financially. As, for instance, one might have criticized the Politburo’s 1930 decision to exterminate the middle-class kulaks as opponents of the Soviet regime by mentioning to Stalin that the policy seemed, well, a trifle counterproductive. Financially speaking.

Of course, if the vice president had actually wanted to talk about what he believes, he might have mentioned that the Catholic Church to which he belongs condemns, on what it claims are universal moral grounds, all deliberate destruction of the family—although that would have taken courage, at a moment when Chinese-Vatican relations are dangerously inflamed.

Or Biden might have observed that in his 2007 autobiography, Promises to Keep, he wrote, “I’ve stuck to my middle-of-the-road position on abortion for more than 30 years. I still vote against partial birth abortion and federal funding, .  .  . but I will also vote against a constitutional amendment that strips a woman of her right to make her own choice.” Unfortunately, even that attempt to finesse the abortion problem would have required enough courage to point out to his Chinese hosts that their policy of coerced abortion was not pro-choice but straightforwardly anti-choice.

For that matter, Biden might have said what his ostensible repugnance, so lately announced, seems to require—that President Bush was right in 2002 to withhold American money from the United Nations Population Fund, and President Obama was wrong in 2009 to restore funding to the U.N. agency that systematically supports China’s abuse of human rights. But that would require something even more from Vice President Biden: the courage actually to believe something. The courage actually to stand for something. And that, of course, Joe Biden has always lacked.

Perhaps that’s why the White House sent him to China in the first place—a sycophant who could be counted upon to fawn on the Chinese officials he met. An American who could be led off to an archery range to shoot arrows with a foolish grin on his face, determinedly not noticing as the reporters in his wake were shoved around by Chinese security and American college basketball players were attacked on court by a Chinese military team.

As it happens, one has difficulty naming who ought to have been sent to China in Biden’s stead. The Chinese need to be convinced simultaneously of American strength and American goodwill. The relatively pro-American side of internal Chinese political battles needs ammunition to use against the officials who think their best way to maintain control of the increasingly unruly population is to make an enemy of the United States and begin a second Cold War. The pro-business pieces of the Chinese mosaic want to be able to make large industrial purchases in the United States, exchanging for equity some of the enormous American debt they hold. The Communists want to use Pakistan to destabilize southern Asia and thereby make advances against India. The democracy activists—including the rising flood of Christian converts—want the United States to be a beacon of individual freedom and faith.

Even if the White House had a coherent foreign policy to deal with all this, who in the government has enough seriousness and weight to travel to China and convey such a policy? Under President Obama, we have an administration that appears to other nations to stand for little except incompetence—and to lack senior officials of any importance who might ease the international situation.

Still, there was something disturbingly weak and peculiar about giving the task to our gaffe-prone vice president. Did we have to send China our court jester? Did we have to send Joe Biden, dressed all in motley?

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