From The Yard to the world stage


Team: Three former midshipmen stand at the center of the confrontation over the collision of a Chinese jet and a U.S. spy plane.

April 07, 2001|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - In 1964, they were all midshipmen in The Yard of the U.S. Naval Academy, three diverse personalities traveling along different roads that would one day intersect on the world stage.

Joseph Prueher, class of 1964, an easygoing Tennessee native who rowed crew along the graceful Severn River, graduated that June.

Dennis Blair, class of 1968, the son of a Navy captain and a brainy soccer player who would stand at the top of his class, arrived as a midshipman that year.

Richard Armitage, class of 1967, overlapped them both. The son of a Massachusetts street cop, he was a burly and engaging football player, with a "never say die" attitude.

Today, the three former midshipmen are at the center of the standoff with China over the collision between a U.S. spy plane and a Chinese fighter jet. Prueher is U.S. ambassador to China, Armitage, as Colin L. Powell's deputy at the State Department, has become the point man for negotiations with the Chinese in Washington. And Blair is the admiral in charge of all U.S. forces in the Pacific.

"I think it's a great team," said retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, the former commander of U.S. forces in the gulf region, who has worked with all three men.

Throughout the past week, Prueher, with his thatch of white hair, has been a fixture in the news as he dashes into China's Foreign Ministry in Beijing with a quick comment for waiting reporters. Early in the drama, an exasperated Prueher offered some of the strongest words of any U.S. official, saying the detention of the 24-member U.S. crew was "inexplicable and unacceptable and of grave concern."

Blair, ensconced at his headquarters in Hawaii, was responsible for the surveillance plane.

A grim Blair, in a series of TV interviews, maintained that the "health and safety of the crew" were of paramount interest.

Armitage, the most voluble and physically imposing of the three, has remained behind closed doors on the seventh floor of the State Department, engaged in a flurry of daily meetings, most notably with the Chinese ambassador, trying to bring an end to the ordeal.

It is a diplomatic role Armitage has played before, trying to forge an agreement with the Philippines to keep U.S. bases open there and to persuade Jordan's King Hussein - who opposed the allied threat to bomb Iraq - to cooperate with allied forces during the Persian Gulf war.

The first was unsuccessful because the Philippine Senate rejected a proposed pact. That country's negotiator complained that Armitage was a bullying "enforcer" of U.S. policy. The second effort paid off when Hussein agreed to be less obstructive in the allied campaign against Iraq.

While Blair has always been considered as being on a steady trajectory to the heights of his profession - a "water walker" in Navy slang - both Prueher and Armitage, combat veterans in Vietnam, have suffered bad luck and missteps that almost doomed their high-level careers.

In 1989, Prueher was commandant of midshipmen, the No. 2 post at the academy, when a female midshipman, Gwen Dreyer, was handcuffed to a urinal. The episode sparked national outrage, and lawmakers on Capitol Hill sharply criticized Prueher's handling of the incident.

"I think he made a mistake. He underestimated that," said retired Adm. Leon "Bud" Edney, who otherwise praised Prueher as "a strong leader with imagination and a great deal of courage."

Three years later, Prueher's nomination to command the 3rd Fleet in San Diego was pulled back by the Navy. The urinal incident had become a "red flag" for senators who would have to vote on his posting. Still, the Navy leadership stuck with Prueher, who said he had learned from the incident. He made amends with lawmakers, particularly Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland, and gained the prestigious job of commander of all U.S. forces in the Pacific in 1996. His successor, in February 1999, was Blair.

Armitage, meanwhile, was fired by the Clinton administration in 1993 as ambassador in charge of aid to the newly independent states of the Soviet Union - a post he gained through the first President Bush - when he said in a speech that Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin was "at the end of his usefulness."

In the current administration, Armitage yearned for the No. 2 post at the Pentagon, but Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld had other ideas and chose Paul Wolfowitz, the dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Subsequently, Secretary of State Powell persuaded his close friend Armitage to join the administration as his deputy.

Zinni, who worked with Armitage on aid to the former Soviet states, called the State Department official "a weight-lifting buddy." Armitage can reportedly bench press 400 pounds. "I've done 300 pounds with him, so I'm sure he could get up to four," Zinni said. "I love the guy because he tells it like it is."

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