Protracted standoff with China could sap the Bush presidency

Analysis: The Iran hostage impasse was different. But as Jimmy Carter learned, an enduring foreign crisis can weaken the president.

April 10, 2001|By Jack W. Germond | Jack W. Germond,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

WASHINGTON - Two weeks after the Iranians seized 66 American hostages in November 1979, a reporter asked Hamilton Jordan, the White House chief of staff, what would happen if the crisis continued into the presidential campaign of 1980.

"We just can't let that happen," Jordan replied.

In fact, it was clear then that neither President Jimmy Carter nor his political advisers believed there was any realistic possibility that the situation in Tehran would become an influential factor in the campaign.

As it turned out, however, the hostage crisis endured and crystallized doubts about Carter's strength and led to his defeat a year later by Republican challenger Ronald Reagan.

The situation in China facing President Bush and his advisers today is quite different from the one that Carter confronted. The Iranian mob that imprisoned the American hostages for 444 days was driven by the religious fanaticism of the Ayatollah Khomeini and his followers, which was far more intense than the nationalism evident in China today.

The political context is also quite different. China is trying to function, especially on economic matters, as part of the world community. The Iran of 1979 was a closed society with little concern for the goodwill of the United States or other Western powers.

But Republican political strategists, including some with reach into the White House, are uneasy about the possibility that the situation could become so drawn out that it has an important effect on the image of the new president. At the moment, opinion surveys show Americans rallying around Bush and his conduct of the China situation.

Nor is there any evidence of pervasive concern about the dangers of the confrontation. Short of some direct military threat to the United States, Americans show little interest in foreign policy.

However, as Carter discovered, public opinion is not immutable.

At the time of the Iran hostage crisis, the president was facing two threats - a forceful but ultimately unsuccessful challenge for the Democratic presidential nomination from Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and the likely prospect of a general election showdown with Reagan, the star of the Republican right.

Early on, the crisis in Tehran worked to Carter's advantage politically. It gave him a valid reason not to wrestle in the mud with his political challenger, and opinion polls showed strong support for Carter's performance. That support was enhanced when shortly after Christmas 1979, the Soviet Union precipitated a second crisis by invading Afghanistan.

As a result, both Kennedy and Reagan were slow to criticize Carter during the early stages of the campaign, and the president defeated Kennedy in the Iowa precinct caucuses and several early primaries. By the first week in April, however, the dynamics had changed. It was then that the declining line of support for the president's performance and the rising line of criticism crossed, intensifying later that month when a hostage rescue mission came to a bloody and abortive end.

Reagan's advisers quickly told him that he could feel free to accuse Carter of the kind of weakness and ineptitude that voters would come to ascribe to him and that proved his undoing in the general election in November 1980.

Bush has no such political situation facing him. The problem for him, political strategists in both parties say, is that this situation developed before Bush was able to resolve the doubts about his capabilities that were raised throughout the 2000 campaign and that still show up prominently in opinion surveys. At this point, he does not have a reservoir of goodwill and respect with the electorate at large.

So the threat to the White House lies in the possibility of an extended standoff with China feeding the doubts about whether the president is up to the job. At the moment, the conventional wisdom is that the situation will be resolved long before it reaches the point at which it proves to be a political problem - and might even be resolved soon enough to be a positive factor for the president.

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