Carter's boycott, done in the name of human rights, accomplished absolutely nothing. I'm willing to say that Bush is a worse president than Carter (who at least deregulated airline ticket pricing and interstate trucking, and invited Willie Nelson to the White House), but it's Bush who has gotten it right when it comes to superpower-charged Olympics.My take on boycotting the Olympics can be found here; there are plenty of good reasons to send a team to China, although we could have saved a lot of money and just sent Michael Phelps for all the medals we're going to win. The canard that unrestricted trade leads inexorably to "freedom" (which is belied, obviously, by the fact that our liberalized dealings with Russia and China don't seem to have done much to make those societies "free") clearly isn't one of them. And far from accomplishing nothing, the 1980 boycott effectively diminished that event in the eyes of the world; without the U.S. (and West Germany, Japan, Australia, Canada, etc.), those Olympics were little more than an Iron Curtain track meet, and the enormous propaganda benefit that Hitler received in 1936, and that the Chinese are getting this year, was denied the Soviet Union.
To have Bush out there, saying what he's saying where he's saying it—and pursuing a larger policy of engagement via trade and other forms of exchange—is absolutely the best way to pull China into something approaching Western-style democracy, complete with robust individual rights and the sort of economy that will ultimately force governments to loosen up. Milton Friedman famously said that as people get richer, they demand the ability to live however they want—that economic freedom, which increases prosperity, helps create the conditions for political freedom. It seems clear that the Chinese government, like all governments, doesn't want to yield power if it can avoid doing so. It's also clear that the more a country trades with the world—for goods, services, and even cultural identities—the less its government can control its people. Here's hoping that the Beijing Olympics, regardless of the predictable and bizarre repressions going on right now to ensure a "stain-free" event, push that process along.
It's safe to say that the 2008 Olympics will bring as much positive change to China as the '36 Games brought to Germany.