China breakthrough: Bush takes questions!

"Diplomacy sometimes takes a little longer than people would like," the president says. And the people who don't like it include many conservative allies.

By Daryl Lindsey
Published April 11, 2001 12:22AM (EDT)

After meeting with Jordan's King Abdullah II Tuesday, President Bush did something about the spy plane standoff with China he had until then refused to do: He answered reporters' questions about the crisis, as it entered Day 10.

"Diplomacy sometimes takes a little longer than people would like," Bush told reporters, in a press conference that featured no flashes of diplomatic or political acumen, but no flubs, either.

Bush's defense of diplomacy might have seemed a simple, Stuart Smalley-style affirmation, but it actually took some courage, in the face of mounting criticism of his cautious China policy from conservative allies.

Tuesday's other major China news involved an American political leader doing something that comes much more naturally for him than press conferences do for Bush: The Rev. Jesse Jackson offered to travel to China to negotiate the return of the 24 crew members being held against their will, pending a resolution of the stalemate between the U.S. and China.

The Bush administration is said to have given the Democratic leader a gentle brushoff. Though Jackson was no doubt eager to burnish his image after a love-child scandal forced him to take a leave from public life earlier this year (a leave that lasted only a weekend), he did successfully negotiate the release of American POWs during the bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999.

Bush himself would not directly answer a reporter's question about Jackson during his Tuesday press conference. "I appreciate the goodwill of a lot of Americans who are concerned about our folks on Hainan Island ... This administration is doing everything it can ... to end the situation in an efficient way," he said.

So far, the loudest criticism of those efforts is coming from Bush's allies on the right. While Democrats like Jackson are offering to help him, the president is getting nothing but grief from conservative intellectuals, who have taken to bashing his dealings with China in Republican-leaning publications and on the Fox News Channel. Many are unhappy with Bush's kid-glove treatment of the Chinese. On Monday night, for instance, conservative columnist Cal Thomas bashed the administration on Fox's "The Edge With Paula Zahn," insisting China "played this -- they played us like a violin." Meanwhile, liberal Geraldine Ferraro, who ran for vice president in 1984 against Bush's father, defended the president.

"Let me just suggest to you that I don't think there's anybody in the world who doesn't know that the United States is the superpower, the only one," Ferraro said, dismissing criticisms of Bush advanced in Monday's Washington Times and a weekend editorial in the Weekly Standard. "We are not weak. We have the best military in the entire world, and China knows that as well as everybody else." Added Fox's resident liberal, Juan Williams: "We have to support President Bush."

On Tuesday, other conservatives weighed in, bashing Bush's China caution. "I think that for 10 days ... we have acted powerless, unduly passive, and in the process I think we are emboldening the worst elements of the bureaucracy in Beijing while demoralizing our allies in Asia," said Gary Bauer, who ran unsuccessfully against Bush in the GOP primaries. And anti-feminist leader Phyllis Schlafly called for trade sanctions against China, according to the Associated Press.

If the growing conservative pressure to take a harsher stand against China is getting to Bush, you couldn't tell from his press conference. Hard-liners have begun calling for sanctions against China if the spy plane's crew isn't quickly released, including yanking the U.S. ambassador, cutting trade ties and blocking China's entry into the World Trade Organization or its bid to host the Olympics. But so far, Bush has resisted. "The longer this goes, the more likely it is that it could -- could -- jeopardize relations," Bush told reporters Tuesday.

Daryl Lindsey

Daryl Lindsey is associate editor of Salon News and an Arthur Burns fellow. He currently lives in Berlin and writes for Salon and Die Welt.

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China George W. Bush Geraldine Ferraro