- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 11, 2001

Yellow ribbons, those dreaded yellow ribbons. If there is one thing the Bush administration wants to avoid it is the trappings a hostage drama with China and the rhetoric that goes with it. In Oak Harbor, Wash. home of the Whidbey Island Naval Air Station and of the crew of the EP-3E surveillance plane at the center of the Chinese-American standoff residents have tied yellow ribbons around every tree, shrub, street sign and lamp post. The church bells toll at noon every day, a token of solidarity with the 24-member crew being held in China.
But held as what? Hostages, prisoners, detainees, guests? Just as the words "regret," "sorrow," and "apology" are being endlessly parsed today, the semantics of the crews imprisonment are crucial. The incident that caused a Chinese F-8 fighter to crash on April 1 and the American plane to effect an emergency landing on Hainan Island has the real potential to cripple the Bush administration the way the Iran hostage crisis crippled the Carter White House. This thought must surely cause cold sweat among presidential advisers on Pennsylvania Avenue. It would be one heck of a way to start a presidency the same way Jimmy Carter ended his, in utter defeat.
While overblown rhetoric will do no good, the question is at what point the White House will be perceived to be in a state of denial. The time will come when the president has to turn up the heat to impress upon the Chinese leaders the seriousness of the situation. You do not hold Americans, hostage or otherwise, free of cost. Mr. Bush inched slightly closer to that point on Monday when he warned, "there is a point the longer it goes theres a point at which our relations with China become damaged."
For now, however, the comparison between the Iran-hostage crisis and the Chinese-U.S. standoff is not borne out, yellow ribbons notwithstanding. Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carters national security adviser, and someone with firsthand knowledge of hostage-takers, rejects the comparison for now. "We are not there yet," he says.
At the White House, understandably, they are trying very hard to keep the level of public anger down. The president has warned that diplomacy may take time and has asked Americans to be patient. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has been all but invisible, as one of the more hawkish members of the administration. Instead, we have seen Secretary of State Powell describe the condition of the crew as "excellent" and their "morale high." By now the entire White House team is on message and the operative word is definitely "low key."
On Sunday, administration officials found themselves in a bit of a scramble to counter the full-throated editorial in the Weekly Standard, where editors had decided to declare the impasse a national crisis and brought out words like "national humiliation," and accused the president of "revealing weakness and fear."
"The American capitulation will also embolden others around the world who have watched this crisis carefully to see the new administrations mettle," so write William Kristol and Robert Kagan. Now the Weekly Standard specializes in a level of rhetoric just short of hysteria, but this is certainly premature, possibly even irresponsible. "With friends like these…" Mr. Bush must be thinking.
According to Mr. Brzezinski, major distinctions exist between the current situation and the Iran hostage crisis. No one wants to see a confrontation between China and the United States, unless perhaps it be Russia. Further, he says, "I assume the Chinese government is still capable of rational decisions." In the case of Iran, it was very different. There was a Khomeini government, but the rabid, radical students who held the Americans for 444 days were only under semi-control of the government.
Just as the Americans have been keen to avoid using the word "hostages," so have the Chinese, says Mr. Brzezinski, which is worth noting. The Chinese clearly strive to create the impression they are giving the Americans decent, even privileged treatment with visits, exercise, and housing in officers quarters. Not that these symbols will mean much if this drama is prolonged indefinitely.
Still, there are lessons that can be learned from the Iran-hostage crisis. One of them is that the U.S. government must not give the impression of being overly eager, which will raise the stakes. Mr. Bushs personal letter to the widow of the Chinese pilot, after the insulting letter dispatched by Chinese Vice Premier Qian Quichen to American officials on Friday, was probably a mistake.
For now, going easy on the melodrama, but being very clear about the consequences for Chinese-American relations, is the best the administration can do. If indeed the Chinese leaders are capable of rational decisions, they ought to be having second thoughts about the collision course they are on.
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