The Bush administration tried to find other ways to satisfy the Chinese. Secretary of State Colin Powell expressed regret. Then the president did the same. No result.
Vice President Dick Cheney said the U.S. would not apologize. He was wrong. In the end, the administration got the crew back only after sending the Chinese a letter saying it was "very sorry."
It was such a humiliating outcome that Mitt Romney accused George W. Bush of "apologizing for America," adopting "a policy of appeasement" and being "timid and weak."
Just kidding. Romney has used those words, but he wasn't talking about Bush. He was talking about Barack Obama.
Yes, Obama. The same president who ordered the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, ordered a military surge in Afghanistan, took out dozens of jihadists in Pakistan with drone missiles, used American air power to topple Moammar Gadhafi and stuck to the Iraq timetable set by his predecessor.
Rick Santorum agrees with Romney on Obama, saying that "for every thug and hooligan, for every radical Islamist, he has had nothing but appeasement." Newt Gingrich accuses the president of "weakness, appeasement and timidity."
The problem with Romney and other Republican leaders is not so much that they are wrong but that they have taken up residence in a bizarre fantasy world where concepts like "true" and "false" have no meaning. They operate on the model suggested by Bush political adviser Karl Rove, who famously ridiculed those in "the reality-based community."
Reality, however, has a way of trumping delusions. Calling Obama an appeaser is like calling Eli Manning a klutz. The only thing odder than saying it is expecting anyone to believe it.
But the appeasement line is a treasured and durable GOP theme. Republicans used it successfully in the 1970s against George McGovern and Jimmy Carter.
They revived it to pummel Democrats who opposed aid to the Nicaraguan rebels in the 1980s, the first war with Iraq in 1991 and the second war with Iraq in 2003. Whenever Democrats resisted military action favored by Republicans, they got painted bright yellow.
The Republicans tried it again in 2008, accusing Obama of pathetic naivete in offering to talk with North Korea and Iran without preconditions. But the tactic didn't have its intended effect. _
Obama was the guy who said he would go into Pakistan if necessary to get bin Laden -- while GOP nominee John McCain was preaching the need to get along with Pakistani dictator Pervez Musharraf.
It's a mystery why they expect this claim to work in 2012. In his approach to foreign policy and national security, Obama has done many things that, if President McCain had done them, would evoke thunderous ovations at this year's Republican convention.
In Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. policy under Obama is not much, if any, different from what we would have expected had Bush stayed for a third term. Even when Obama has diverged from previous policy on other issues, the change cannot be detected without a microscope.
Romney and Co. accuse Obama of allowing Iran to proceed toward getting nuclear weapons -- without noting that much of Iran's progress came under Bush, or that his sanctions are tighter than those of his predecessor. Nor do Republicans mention that under Bush, North Korea carried out its first nuclear detonation.
Santorum says Obama is even "refusing to do anything covertly" to stop Iran from getting nukes. Really? How would he know? Has he not heard about the untimely deaths of Iranian nuclear scientists or the mysterious computer virus (reportedly a U.S.-Israeli project) that destroyed hundreds of its nuclear centrifuges?
The Romney campaign faults the administration for "bowing to Chinese pressure and refusing to sell F-16s to Taiwan." But Obama did increase U.S. arms shipments to the Taiwanese, including Patriot missiles and Black Hawk helicopters.
And guess who else declined to sell them F-16s? George W. Bush. You know -- the guy who apologized to Beijing.
The next time Republicans feel the urge to use the word "appeasement," they might first take a close look at the record. Or buy a dictionary.