Handling of China crisis could benefit president

But success may not erase doubts about Bush, analysts say

April 12, 2001|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - For President Bush, the first word that the spy plane stalemate with China was over came in a pre-dawn phone call yesterday from his national security adviser.

"That's great," Bush said, according to aides, when he heard that China's state-run news media was reporting that the U.S. aircrew would be sent home.

Bush leaned across the bed to give his wife, Laura, the good news. But he hid his elation as he stepped before cameras two hours later and announced matter-of-factly that a diplomatic deal had been struck.

"This has been a difficult situation for both our countries," Bush said, reading a terse statement in the White House briefing room.

Ignoring reporters' questions, Bush turned away from the microphones and headed off, through a cold spring rain, on a previously planned trip to North Carolina. Aides said he did not want to say anything that might jeopardize the crew's release.

Bush's success in freeing the 24 crew members isn't likely to erase all doubts about his ability to manage an overseas crisis. But if history is any guide, Bush will likely benefit politically, at least in the short term, from successfully meeting the first test of his young presidency.

The public's assessment of how well a president is performing his job typically rises in the aftermath of a foreign policy crisis. Presidential historian Douglas Brinkley recalled how President Gerald R. Ford's popularity skyrocketed after 39 crewmen from the U.S. merchant ship Mayaquez were rescued in 1975 after being held for several days by Cambodian forces.

For Bush, standing firm against the Chinese and gaining the safe release of the crew would represent "a feather in his presidential cap," said Brinkley, while observing that Bush's rhetoric at the outset "could have been a little more delicate" and "seemed to exacerbate" the problem.

From members of Congress, there was bipartisan praise for the Bush administration's performance.

President Bush and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell "were able to work out a diplomatic solution, and they are to be commended for that," said Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, a Maryland Democrat. He added that the bargain with the Chinese struck the right balance of expressing sorrow and regret without accepting responsibility for the midair collision April 1 over the South China Sea.

Sen. Bob Graham, a Florida Democrat, said Bush's low-key handling of the matter had "lowered the level of significance of the incident" and helped keep tensions from spinning out of control.

Early on, Bush and his advisers had decided that the president should project a business-as-usual attitude. He stuck to his previously announced schedule, including a trip to Milwaukee last Friday to throw out the first pitch at a Brewers baseball game. Aides said he had planned to spend a long Easter weekend at his Texas ranch even if the stalemate had not been resolved.

During the 11 days of negotiations, Bush had little to say in public about the standoff, particularly after the Chinese ignored his initial demands for the crew's release. When he did speak publicly - using words that he and his aides had carefully worked out in advance and put on note cards - he did not look entirely at ease.

The president's determination to be seen going about his regular duties was "part of keeping this incident at a level where it does not evolve into a crisis," White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said this week.

Veterans of similar crises in past administrations endorsed that approach. Robert McFarlane, President Ronald Reagan's national security adviser, said that if Bush had become "publicly and overtly obsessed" with the safety of the U.S. crew, it could have upped the ante and made it more difficult to resolve the crisis.

Detailed information about the Bush administration's internal deliberations have yet to emerge. But there have been no reports of prolonged, tense meetings between the president and top advisers at the White House.

To the contrary, descriptions of Bush's actions by administration officials suggest that he did not allow the standoff to greatly disrupt either his personal routine or his preference for delegating authority.

On Tuesday night, Bush phoned a National Security Council aide for an update around his usual bedtime, 10:30 p.m., and was told that the Chinese had yet to respond to the latest U.S. attempt to break the impasse, Fleischer told reporters.

At 12:45 a.m., Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage phoned Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, with important news: The Chinese wanted to see the final text of the U.S. offer and had scheduled a meeting with the American ambassador, "a sure sign that this matter was on its way to being resolved," Fleischer said.

But Rice did not phone Bush to inform him of the development until 5:40 a.m., according to a reconstruction of events provided by the White House.

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