China policy needs firmness

April 16, 2001|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- President Bush's regret-but-not-apologize solution achieving release by China of the 24 American crew members of the U.S. surveillance plane has brought immediate relief at home, but not without expressions of concern from his party's right wing about his backbone.

Americans who were fearful that Mr. Bush's cocky personal style, coupled with his lack of experience in foreign policy, would lead him to magnify the incident to a crisis of old Cold War proportions will be assuaged by his retreat from early bluster to calm deliberation and a peaceful resolution.

But even before he struck the deal, cries of humiliation and weakness were coming from the Republican right. A very lengthy editorial in one of its leading organs, edited by William Kristol, who was Vice President Dan Quayle's chief of staff in the earlier Bush administration, warned that even with the crew's release, "no one should ignore the enormous price that will have been paid to secure their freedom."

The editorial, written by Mr. Kristol and Robert Kagan, declared that "the United States is on the path of humiliation," and that "the American capitulation will also embolden others around the world who have watched this crisis carefully to see a new administration's mettle tested."

The Chinese, they wrote, must "be made to pay a price for their actions." They called on Congress to refuse the Beijing regime future most-favored-nation trading status and demanded that Mr. Bush sell new weapons to Taiwan to demonstrate U.S. resistance to intensified Chinese pressures on the island.

A less frenzied but nevertheless notable response after the crew's release came from Republican Sen. John McCain, fresh from his winning fight for campaign finance reform in what was widely perceived as a direct challenge to his presidential primary foe from Texas on the issue.

The Arizona senator said he shared "the happiness of all Americans for their safe return" and expressed his pride in "their faithful service to our country," but added that their release had not "allayed doubts over China's commitment to a respectful, mutually beneficial relationship with the United States, and to the international norms of behavior upon which world peace and stability depend."

In language that was pointedly absent from Mr. Bush's comments, Mr. McCain called the Chinese delay in the crew's release "reprehensible" and charged that Beijing had "dishonestly attempted to shift blame for the mid-air collision" on the United States. That is the luxury that being in the Senate rather than in the Oval Office allows him in a delicate diplomatic situation.

Discussions with the Chinese, set for next week, Mr. McCain added, "must leave no doubt whatsoever our firm resolve to meet fully our responsibilities to safeguard regional stability and the security of the United States and our allies."

Interestingly, all Mr. McCain had to say about his old political rival in his statement regarding the episode was that he was "confident President Bush will instruct American officials to make our position clear to their Chinese counterparts at the earliest opportunity." The remark was hardly a ringing congratulation to his party's leader for resolving what could have been a much stickier affair.

For all the breast-beating on the right, the 11-day detention of the Americans hardly rose to the level of the crisis that confronted and so politically damaged President Jimmy Carter in the taking of American hostages in Iran in 1979. That episode came in the context of a siege of the American embassy by Iranian street mobs and threats to kill the hostages. It lasted for 14 months before the last 54 Americans were released, at the very hour Mr. Carter was relinquishing the presidency to Ronald Reagan.

In domestic political terms alone, that history made it imperative for Mr. Bush this time around to get the air crew out of Chinese territory and back home before he suffered Mr. Carter's fate.

Mr. Bush's critics on the right are, however, correct in noting that he must now stand firm on American rights of air surveillance if his regret-but-not-apology solution is not seen in the long run as weakness rather than diplomatic practicality.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington Bureau. His latest book is "No Way to Pick a President" (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1999).

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