- The Washington Times - Friday, April 13, 2001

President Bush passed his first international test with flying colors, winning the release of the 24 hostages held by China for 12 days with a masterful and disciplined diplomacy, analysts and senior aides said yesterday.
"He did exceptionally well not just well, exceptionally well," said Stephen Hess, a presidential scholar with the Brookings Institute. "To only appear when necessary and only say the minimum things necessary to be said was the perfect way to handle this. It was very Eisenhoweresque."
Senior Bush officials, of course, agreed with that assessment. "He let the people he picked do the job he picked them to do," said one senior aide.
The aide said the president kept his eye on the long-range picture. The standoff was but one tiny battle in an endless diplomatic war with the world's largest communist country.
"Now that it's over, it's really just beginning," said the aide, who asked not to be identified. "There will be fallout for months, at least, and probably years."
Chinese officials dug in early with their demand for a full apology over what now, in retrospect, appears to have been a minor diplomatic dilemma.
But China could be marginalized in the international community as it attempts to move in an increasingly democratic world led by the United States.
The Bush aide noted that many members of Congress have been angered by the brash behavior of China, which demanded an apology for what U.S. officials said was the death of a hot dog pilot who endangered the lives of Americans by clipping their surveillance plane in international airspace.
"What Congress does now is really beyond our control," the aide said, not mentioning whether the Bush administration would make any effort to soothe congressional tempers.
China faces a renewed battle in Congress this summer when members debate Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) for the country. While China won PNTR last year, the country did not adhere to conditions established for its entry into the World Trade Organization, setting up another annual faceoff on Capitol Hill.
This time, however, members of Congress will have the latest episode on their minds. Already, some are clamoring for the repeal of PNTR for China.
But Beijing faces other diplomatic challenges. The Bush administration is now considering what military equipment to sell to Taiwan, which China considers to be a breakaway province. The island has requested four destroyers equipped with the Aegis battle management system, a highly sophisticated technology that would put Taiwan on better footing with its nearby adversary.
U.S. officials also may keep quiet on or even openly oppose Beijing's attempt to host the Olympic Games in 2008. The United States carries considerable clout in international sporting events, and simply expressing a coolness to the request could kill it.
"We may not fight it, but we may not support it either," the Bush aide said.
At the end of the standoff, Mr. Bush moved toward Beijing's "apology" demand, at least allowing the Chinese to interpret the U.S. words in a manner that allowed them to save face. But some analysts said the president acted wisely in the short term, allowing others to take prominent roles while he reserved both his stature and his power.
"As Dwight Eisenhower said, 'You can accomplish an awful lot if you give somebody else the credit,' " Mr. Hess said.
Mr. Bush set the tone, but let his people handle the details while he stayed focused on his domestic agenda, never slipping into a siege mentality.
"Since Eisenhower, every international crisis has immediately been moved to the White House Situation Room. But President Bush kept the matter a State Department issue where it should have stayed, and thus his point man became the most prominent figure in his administration [Secretary of State] Colin Powell," Mr. Hess said.
The president's handling of the standoff was a far cry from how his predecessor would have acted, some analysts said.
"Think of how [Bill] Clinton would have done it. He would have been all over it himself. He had to show everyone he was the smartest person in the room," Mr. Hess said.
But allowing the Chinese to save face by claiming America apologized for the entire incident angered hawkish conservatives, who saw the move as a retreat by the president in the face of Beijing's demands.
"It appears that the administration is willing to pay about any price to avoid a confrontation with China," said Marshall Wittmann of the Hudson Institute. "There's an obsessive commitment to avoiding anything that will endanger our relationship with China."
He, too, compared the new president's performance to that of Mr. Clinton and the man Mr. Bush defeated for the job, former Vice President Al Gore.
"If Gore or Clinton had issued this letter, the National Guard would have had to be called into Washington to quell the rioting from conservatives," he said. "The administration bent over backward to accommodate in every way they could the Chinese demands. They went pretty far for a Republican administration."
Mr. Wittmann said the president's team conceded because it had one thing in mind: "They just wanted this thing over."
"He may be taking compassionate conservatism too far. The question is when does a humble nation become a humbled nation," he said.
Another sign Mr. Bush erred, according to Mr. Wittmann, is the media coverage he received.
The Washington Post had a front page story yesterday headlined "Behind Scenes, Bush Played Vigorous Role."
The article featured a quote from longtime Clinton defender Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., Delaware Democrat, who said the Bush administration did "a first-rate job."
"Conservatives should be concerned when Joe Biden and liberal pundits are praising the administration," Mr. Wittmann said.
But Mr. Hess said the president's favorable reviews come precisely because of his predecessor.
"He has the great advantage of coming after Bill Clinton. People just don't want to spend that much time thinking about their president. This is the way to start."

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