In bombing aftermath, counting the errors

May 12, 1999|By Linda Chavez

NATO bombs killed three people and injured 20 more at the Chinese embassy in Belgrade last week, but the casualties from this appalling blunder continue to mount. The Chinese government has already announced suspension of high-level talks with Washington over human rights, arms control and nuclear proliferation issues.

But the repercussions could hit hard within the Chinese government itself, too, as those in Beijing who have urged closer ties to the Clinton administration get their comeuppance.

Missing signals

The U.S.-Chinese relationship during the Clinton years has been marked by a series of miscalculations of monumental proportions on both sides. U.S. and Chinese officials have been misreading signals from each other for years, based on the mistaken assumption of both parties that everyone was operating under the same rules.

The Chinese government funneled more than $1 million dollars into the Clinton re-election campaign in an attempt to buy silence on human-rights issues and more access to U.S. military technology and markets.

A double-cross

The Chinese no doubt felt that the Clinton administration double-crossed them last month by endorsing a U.N. Human Rights Committee rebuke of China's human rights record. Also, the president failed to push for China's acceptance into the World Trade Organization. And they may well feel that the bombing of their embassy in Belgrade was payback for the discovery of their extensive spying at the U.S. nuclear labs in Los Alamos, N.M., and elsewhere.

The Clinton administration has been just as off-base in its assumptions about the Chinese, with perhaps more dangerous implications. Take the administration's explanation of Friday's bombing: Concerned about growing criticism of its air-war strategy, administration officials were quick to deflect blame from the pilots and military planners to the CIA.

Pilots targeted the wrong building, administration officials said, because the CIA had provided them with erroneous analysis based on fuzzy aerial reconnaissance photographs, without information from sources actually on the ground.

By blaming the CIA, the administration has actually intensified the most paranoid distrust of the Chinese government. No one in Beijing will believe the CIA targeted the Chinese embassy by accident. At best, the Chinese may believe the "mistake" was really a rogue operation by hard-liners in the agency. At worst, they'll think Mr. Clinton directly ordered the action.

Administration officials may have exacerbated that suspicion by letting it be known throughout the Kosovo campaign that the president personally reviews and approves all sensitive targets -- much as President Lyndon Johnson did during the Vietnam war, with similar disastrous consequences.

By pointing the finger at the CIA, the Clinton administration has undermined its own efforts to calm jittery Chinese nerves. The Chinese won't soon forget -- or forgive -- this latest betrayal by a president they thought they owned.

Linda Chavez is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 5/12/99

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