- The Washington Times - Friday, April 6, 2001

The Bush administration is being careful not to call the 24 Americans being detained in China "hostages," in part because that would recall the hostage crisis that hamstrung President Carter and diminished America's self-image.

The White House insists it is so focused on getting the crew members released that there is no time to worry about whether a protracted standoff could ultimately diminish the political effectiveness of the fledgling Bush administration.

"That's such a hypothetical I'm not even going to deal with that," White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said in response to a question from The Washington Times. "The White House's focus has been on one thing, and it's not politics. It's getting our men and women home."

"And again, I want to remind you that it remains at a very sensitive stage," he said.

Democrats are following the age-old American tradition of refraining from criticizing the president during a national security crisis. But behind the scenes, Democrats are also sizing up the political ramifications of President Bush's performance during his first big foreign policy test.

"Obviously, during the campaign, one critique offered of Governor Bush was his lack of experience in foreign policy," said Democratic strategist Scot Segal. "And to the extent that events dictate an unwelcome result, I am certain that some Democratic political leaders will issue the predictable I-told-you-so."

But even Democrats emphasized that now is not the time for publicly second-guessing the commander in chief. They called the standoff with China a daunting challenge for a president who had been sailing along with few setbacks for the first 10 weeks of his term.

"I think it's unfortunate that the first major foreign policy difficulty comes from China because Chinese foreign policy is one of the most difficult issues that any president can face," said Mr. Segal. "The political regime in China is so difficult to anticipate that it makes it perilous to proceed in sort of an untutored manner. So he really has his work cut out for him."

Meanwhile, the press is deliberating over when the standoff can truly be considered a hostage crisis. While news organizations have ignored the Pentagon's request to stop calling the downed U.S. reconnaissance aircraft a "spy plane," they have deferred, for now, to the administration's preference for calling the crew members "detainees" and not "hostages."

"The Americans don't want to use that word no one wants to go there," said CNN's Frank Sesno, who landed an exclusive interview with China's ambassador to the United States this week. "In fact, officials reject the use of that term because a hostage is someone for whom a ransom or some kind of request is made. That's not the case in this particular situation."

"Language is very important, and what the United States is saying is that these crew members should be repatriated, returned home," he said. "But the U.S. side is being very careful, very calibrated in its language because the U.S. wants to try to do everything it can to contain the situation and try to keep it calm so it doesn't spill over and have serious collateral damage on the broader relationship."

But if the standoff drags into a second week, the public might well come to view it as a hostage debacle. The Bush administration does not relish the prospect of a protracted crisis that would invite comparisons to the Carter administration.

Such comparisons have already begun to surface. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote this week: "We're not getting Bush II. We're getting Carter II. All we need is the Killer Rabbit. And that is not where you want to be at the beginning of your presidency."

But few are ready to compare the current standoff with China, which entered its fifth day yesterday, to the Iranian hostage crisis that dragged on for 444 days under Mr. Carter's presidency and spawned the TV show, "America Held Hostage," which became "Nightline."

"I think it's way too early for that," Mr. Segal said. "The distinctions between China and Iran in this instance are greater than the similarities. In the case of Iran, there had been a revolution, it had been avowedly anti-American, and it was clear from the moment the hostages were taken that they were not going to be released for some time because that was the avowed position of the regime."

"This is a very different situation," he said. "I suspect this situation would resolve itself rather quickly."

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