Tough guys can be really nice
By Lawrence Henry
George W. Bush. Interesting guy. By now, of course, his actions in dealing with the knockdown of the EP-3 surveillance plane near China have been analyzed to a fare-thee-well. But let's take a look at Mr. Bush himself, at how he thinks about things, and at how he does them. This incident tells us a great deal about how the President behaves and why, and, I believe, gives us a solid clue about something that will probably happen in the early part of his first term.
1. President Bush knows what things are really worth. Check the facts of the encounter with China. Chinese fighter planes have been stunting around American surveillance aircraft for a long time. Bush knew that, and knew that an accident was likely to happen. It didn't surprise him.
Nor did it disturb him unduly. He has flown in the military himself. He knew that surveillance missions sometimes get in trouble, that a surveillance air crew might be forced down some time. And he didn't agonize about the crew. They had done their job and suffered one of the possible consequences of putting themselves in harm's way. The crew knew how to behave. President Bush knew they knew how to behave. This encounter was, therefore, not a crisis - just an ordinary hazard of the business of nations.
2. The Chinese fighter pilot did not deliberately damage the U.S. EP-3, did not deliberately cut his own airplane in two - and he certainly did not deliberately die trying to eject from his airplane. However much these consequences proceeded from a PLA policy of harassment and less-than-stellar flying acumen, they were, in sum, an accident. Therefore, the Chinese government's response - to hold on to the U.S. air crew and to demand an apology for some preposterously claimed offense - was an ad-lib.
That ad-lib response was shown, over 11 days, to have been rather foolish. I believe President Bush saw right away that the Chinese had put themselves in a box. He promptly issued a pro forma request for the return of the plane and the crew - this being what the media analysts like to call his early "belligerence"; what was the man supposed to do? Then he and his State Department got to work giving the Chinese just enough of an excuse to back down.
3. Bush knew the Chinese had boxed themselves in, and that their demands would be seen to be shrill, pointless, and foolish. But that perception never would have developed if the President had - like his predecessor - gone in for grandstanding of his own. Instead, after an initial statement, Bush kept quiet, and kept his team working on the main goal, getting the U.S. air crew released.
4. Bush does not want a big, headline-style fight early in his administration. The Chinese know that. Their gambit aimed to find out how badly Bush wanted to avoid fighting. Did the Chinese get a clear answer? No, not really. They did find out there was a line the President would not cross, that when Bush said "No, no more changes in the letter," he really meant it.
That doesn't seem like much to some people - indeed, it didn't seem like much to me at the time. But here's the main point:
5. The Chinese wanted to make this incident big - or rather, to see how big they could make it. Bush wanted to keep it small. Bush won.
Some commentators brought up President Reagan's firing of the air traffic controllers early in his administration, comparing the Bush-China standoff to that incident. These writers, some of them, predicted wishfully that Bush would do something tough the way Reagan had.
But the situations were completely different. In future, I am sure, George W. Bush will find his own version of the PATCO confrontation, and he will do something notably tough. Like Reagan, he will recognize a fat hanging curve ball when he sees it and knock it out of the park. (Reagan had nothing to lose politically from antagonizing labor, and everything to gain from firing the controllers.) The EP-3 downing wasn't the right pitch to hit.
Lawrence Henry is a regular contributor to Enter Stage Right.
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