We are hearing now, in the shadow of troubles with China, that President George W. Bush is too stupid to handle this delicate situation.
It is absurd to call Bush stupid. But leaving that aside for the moment, where do people get the idea that foreign policy is so hard? (And correspondingly, why do people think domestic policy is easy? The health care financing system in America -- now that's hard!) Certainly people who master a foreign language and culture deserve a tip of the hat -- but most of the time, in international relations, a sturdy capacity to stand down bullies is far more useful than all of the diplomatic courtesies taught in the foreign service.
Richard Nixon understood how to project strength, and how to play one opponent off against the other. He was clever enough to keep our adversaries guessing about his true intentions, and thereby kept them slightly off balance even though Congress dealt him a weak hand.
Jimmy Carter thought you could catch more bees with honey than vinegar and proudly announced early in his term that the United States should overcome its "inordinate fear of communism." The communists in the Kremlin took his measure and proceeded to add 13 new countries, including Afghanistan, to their empire. Carter was by accounts an intelligent man. But he was a weakling in international affairs, and free people everywhere suffered for it.
Bill Clinton is as clever as they come, but he, too, was a milksop in international relations, and his weakness is part of the reason we are facing the challenge now dominating the news. After mistakenly bombing the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, the Clinton Administration commenced not just an apology (which was justified), but a prolonged and humiliating grovel. While the Chinese leadership bussed people in from the countryside for "spontaneous" anti-American demonstrations, Chinese President Jiang Zemin refused for a solid week even to accept President Clinton's numerous phone calls attempting to apologize. When at last Jiang deigned to speak to the American President, Clinton went on for a half hour about his sincere "regrets and condolences" and took time to beg the Chinese leader to let the United States help China gain admittance to the World Trade Organization. Presidential spokesman Joe Lockhart said Jiang "took the opportunity to express his views" -- which probably means he was rude -- and refused to say whether the Chinese leader accepted Mr. Clinton's apology. Fully one month later, Under Secretary of State Thomas Pickering flew to Beijing to brief the Chinese leadership on the results of our investigation into the mistaken bombing of their embassy. "This irrelevant explanation only shows that the United States lacks any sincerity," the People's Daily pronounced the next day.
In the days since the Chinese forced our EP-3 to make an emergency landing and took our crew hostage, there has been much learned talk about the importance of "face" in Asian cultures. But most commentary has offered only half of the picture. While it's true that Asians hate to lose face (as do Westerners, but never mind), they also have a nasty habit of despising the loser of a "face" confrontation. We lost face badly in 1999, not because we bombed their embassy, but because the Clinton Administration acted like lickspittles.
The Chinese have decided to press their advantage. The EP-3 episode was not unique. It is part of a challenge the Chinese have mounted to our influence in the Pacific. Their fighters have become so aggressive in tailing our planes (which were operating and are free to operate in international waters) that the United States lodged official protests in December and January. The demand for an apology now is not just an attempt to establish blame for the crash -- blame which almost certainly lies with the dead Chinese pilot -- but also to force the United States to constrict its area of operations in the Pacific.
So far, Mr. Bush has handled it just right. He has expressed "regret" for the pilot's life, but no apology. However much hope we may have for China's future, it remains today the most tyrannical and dangerous regime in the world. A kowtow will only feed the most aggressive tendencies of the leadership. In other words: Never submit to bullies.