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By SARA FRITZ
© St. Petersburg Times, published April 6, 2001
WASHINGTON -- When President Bush promised during his campaign that he would pursue a humble foreign policy, most of his listeners did not have the faintest idea what he meant.
"I think the United States must be humble," Bush said during a televised presidential debate last October. "We must be proud and confident of our values, but humble in how we treat nations that are figuring out how to chart their own course."
As the standoff with China demonstrates, Bush's notion of a humble foreign policy does not mean the United States will readily apologize for its legitimate actions around the world, such as intelligence gathering in Asia.
Nevertheless, Bush's actions in the past few days have reflected a different approach to such dilemmas from that of the Clinton administration.
On Thursday, the president again expressed regret for the death of a Chinese fighter pilot involved in the incident, and top administration officials were involved in intense negotiations with the Chinese government. The talks were believed to be at a delicate juncture.
Foreign policy experts note that the president, true to his campaign promises, has been firm in his refusal to apologize but cautious in protecting U.S.-China relations and generous in offering the Chinese a face-saving way out of the situation.
"Clinton was a doormat the Chinese were using," said John Hulsman, foreign policy fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. "His motto was: "Engage at any cost.' Bush is taking a much more reasonable and balanced approach."
Humility in foreign policy, Hulsman says, means that the U.S. government must recognize that there is a limit to what a great superpower can achieve in the world.
"By being humble, you acknowledge reality," he said.
Hulsman said "a great example of humility" in U.S. foreign policy under Bush was the president's recent effort to explain to British Prime Minister Tony Blair and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder why the United States needs to develop a missile defense system and his pledge to use the system to protect U.S. allies. He said that was "something Clinton never did."
Of course, if Bush had been permitted to select his first foreign policy crisis, it certainly would not have involved China. Not only are U.S. relations with China especially complex, but Bush's father, like Clinton, was often accused of being too cozy with the Chinese leadership in Beijing. Long before he was president, the elder Bush was U.S. ambassador to China.
While the younger Bush's approach to this crisis is more cautious than his father's might have been in similar circumstances, the president is known to have sought his father's advice on a strictly confidential basis in recent days. And there also were unconfirmed reports Thursday that Bush was thinking of sending his father to Beijing as a special envoy to win the release of the 24 servicemen and women whose spy plane made an emergency landing on Hainan Island after tangling with a Chinese fighter jet.
When asked Thursday whether the administration was considering the appointment of a special envoy, perhaps even the president's father, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said: "I am not going to guess or give you odds at this point."
The odds are that Bush will not select his father as special envoy because so many of Bush's conservative supporters do not have fond memories of U.S.-China relations during his presidency. Even without a special envoy, the U.S.-Chinese negotiations were said to be yielding positive results.
In many ways, a crisis such as this one is more a test of the president's nervous system than it is a measure of his approach to diplomacy. When a foreign government is holding U.S. citizens against their will, there is a limit to what any president can do to end the crisis.
Since the U.S. plane went down on Sunday, Bush has made every effort to show himself to be unflappable and not necessarily preoccupied by the standoff. He continued to follow his regular schedule and refused to answer reporters' questions about the negotiations with China.
Some of Bush's most conservative supporters in Congress would have him lash out at the Chinese by deciding suddenly to sell advanced weapons to Taiwan or by denying normal trade relations to China.
"That would be the emotionally satisfying thing to do," Hulsman said.
Instead, Bush has been slow to escalate his rhetoric or threaten the Chinese. While insisting on the return of the U.S. plane crew, he continually has stressed that the United States values its relations with China.
"The message to the Chinese is: We should not let this incident destabilize relations," Bush said at a meeting of the American Society of Newspaper Editors on Thursday. "Our relationship with China is very important. . . . But the Chinese have got to act, and I hope they will do so quickly."
When asked to elaborate, he replied sharply: "I have no further comments on that subject."
At the same time, Bush has not ruled out more drastic steps in the future if the crew is not returned soon. When asked if the president intends to retaliate by reversing his support for free trade relations with China or objecting to Beijing's plans for hosting the 2008 Olympics, Ari Fleisher, the president's spokesman, replied: "The president is taking it one step at a time."