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By SARA FRITZ
© St. Petersburg Times, published April 16, 2001
WASHINGTON -- If Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan were still president, you can bet he would have been standing on the tarmac when the 24-member crew of the downed U.S. spy plane returned from China.
That's because Clinton and Reagan knew how to burnish their image by claiming credit for every foreign policy success and by associating themselves with American patriotism whenever possible.
So why was George W. Bush absent from this joyous homecoming scene?
The answer, according to White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, is that President Bush does not want to put the crew members and their families through what he called "hoop-de-la."
"It is part of how George W. Bush approaches very important emotional, sensitive moments with people and their families," Fleischer continued. "He believes people should be entitled to privacy, to dignity, he does not believe that politicians need to always insert themselves into tender moments."
Bush never made a campaign promise to spurn hoop-de-la, but he did pledge to set a different tone as president. His decision to avoid the homecoming festivities is consistent with the kind of foreign policy he promised and the way he has conducted himself so far.
During his campaign, Bush pledged to pursue a "humble" foreign policy. And that meant two things: 1) He does not intend to intervene in every conflict around the world, and 2) he will allow America's adversaries to save face if they do the right thing.
In the standoff with China, the Bush administration demonstrated its commitment to humility in foreign policy by engineering what some experts have termed a "win-win" situation in which both China and the United States could claim to come out of it a winner.
But, oddly enough, Bush's penchant for humility and his aversion to hoop-de-la are being attacked by the very people who criticized Clinton for trying always to be the center of attention and the big winner.
Conservative pundit William Kristol and his co-author, Robert Kagan, last week accused Bush of causing "a national humiliation" by taking a low-key approach to the crisis and writing a letter to the Chinese using the words "very sorry" to win the freedom of the crew.
"If we simply try to put the crisis behind us and return to 'normal,' as so many China hands, foreign policy realists, corporate executives and our secretary of state have suggested," Kristol and Kagan wrote, "the message to the Chinese leaders will be that they will pay no price for the assault on American interests and honor. No message could be more dangerous or more dishonorable."
Frankly, I think the Kristol-Kagan point of view seems a little heavy on the testosterone.
I don't believe the United States must insist on being an outright winner in every international confrontation. I don't think the administration should have put the lives of 24 Americans in jeopardy in the defense of something as ephemeral as honor. I guess that makes me one of those foreign policy realists whom Kristol and Kagan scorn.
Kristol and Kagan also make the mistake of calculating winning or losing on an international scale as the result of an isolated event, instead of looking at each confrontation as a single round in a multiround matchup. We do not have to grind our adversaries' faces into the dirt in every round in order to prevail in the long run.
It is important to remember that Bush did not yield to the underlying Chinese demand for an end to U.S. reconnaissance flights in international airspace along the coast of China. When those flights resume in the near future, it will be clear that Bush held steadfast to American interests in Asia.
Still, I doubt Bush can sustain his low-key approach for long.
Is it realistic to think that a president, in an age where his personality is often seen as a measure of the character of the country, can continue to ignore the chest-beaters and shun the hoop-de-la that is associated with victory? Is it likely that Bush, a novice at diplomacy, could be re-elected in 2004 by downplaying his achievements in foreign policy?
The obvious answer to these questions is: No.
I do not think the Chinese now see Bush as a weak president, as his critics contend. But there is no doubt that some of his Republican supporters see it that way, and the opinions of those people are probably more important to him than the views of the leaders in Beijing.
I predict Bush will eventually be forced to embrace the tough-guy style -- just as his father did to dispel the notion that he was a wimp. In the future, Bush, like most presidents, probably will develop a taste for the bold strokes and the hoop-de-la.
- Sara Fritz can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by telephone at (202) 463-0576.