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Bush should fear Congress, public more than China


© St. Petersburg Times, published April 9, 2001

WASHINGTON -- America Held Hostage -- Day 10.

WASHINGTON -- America Held Hostage -- Day 10.

If you were alive and alert during the late 1970s, you probably remember how ABC's Nightline news program got its start with nightly coverage of the Iranian hostage crisis, and how it undermined what was left of President Carter's credibility by reminding viewers every night just how many days the American hostages had been held in Tehran.

Not until the crisis reached Day 444 -- long after Carter had been soundly defeated for re-election by Ronald Reagan -- were the hostages freed. By that time, most of the country was draped in yellow ribbon.

Understandably, President Bush is haunted by the memory of that famous foreign policy debacle as he seeks a way to win the release of 24 U.S. service men and women being held by the Chinese. He is asking himself: What if this goes on for weeks and weeks? Will the American people become as unforgiving of me as they were of Carter?

So far, the television networks have been fairly restrained in their coverage of Beijing's resolve to extract an apology from the United States before releasing the crew members forced to land their spy plane after a midair encounter with a Chinese fighter jet.

But Bush knows the Chinese are not his biggest worry in this situation. What worries him more is that Congress and the American people will come to blame him for the standoff if it continues for a long time.

While polls show that U.S. citizens approve of Bush's handling of the problem, public opinion has proved to be mighty fickle in such cases.

Perhaps the best thing that has happened to Bush is that Congress has adjourned for two weeks. If members of Congress were in town, their willingness to support the president in his negotiations would undoubtedly be wearing thin.

No president, no matter how popular, has true friends in Congress whenever the United States is in the throes of an embarrassing international crisis. As sure as the sun will come up tomorrow, these lawmakers would hasten to distance themselves from him, creating the impression that they would be more successful if they were in the president's position.

The Chinese might be tough adversaries, but not as tough as a member of Congress who fears that he or she might be held even slightly responsible for a messy foreign policy debacle.

The volatility of this situation in the minds of Americans, including members of Congress, is one of the reasons why Bush is taking such a low-key approach. This could save him from being too closely identified with the problem, at least for a while.

It also explains why Bush has been more conciliatory than some of his advisers would like. It was Bush, in a meeting Wednesday with his foreign policy advisers, who provided the inspiration for the United States' statement of regret.

But there is no way Bush can escape the blame if the crisis continues for a long time -- even if he has done everything possible to resolve it. This gives him a big incentive to settle it, and fast.

The talks appear to be stymied. China is demanding an apology from the United States, and the president's advisers are telling him that the United States has done nothing for which to apologize.

Probably the best solution would be an unapologetic apology -- the kind that stubborn children render under pressure from their parents. Everyone knows the kid doesn't mean it, but the parent is usually satisfied.

(I confess I am a great believer that the lessons of the parent-child relationship can be applied to just about any situation, large or small.)

Bush has many options open to him. Carter might have been a two-term president if the Iranians had been demanding nothing more than an apology.

Unlike Iran, China has many close ties with the United States, especially economic ones on which both countries depend heavily. The Chinese want to be granted full trading privileges with the United States, and they need American support if they are going to host the 2008 Olympics.

It is highly unlikely we will be wearing yellow ribbons this time.

- Sara Fritz can be reached by e-mail at fritz@sptimes.com or by telephone at (202) 463-0576.

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