After President Bush's "I'm very sorry, I'm very sorry, but this is not an apology" letter to China prompted the release of the 24 U.S. servicemembers and ended what had become a tense standoff, the general response from his fellow conservatives has been one big fat "Hurray for George!"
The normally hawkish Heritage Foundation says Bush "handled well" the crisis. Remarkably, conservative commentator Peggy Noonan wrote that perhaps the "best summation" came from the father of a crewmember who "told MSNBC, '[China] can believe what they want to believe and we can believe what we can believe.'" This from a columnist who had previously celebrated Bush for his "Reaganesque understanding of the world."
But there are a handful of conservatives -- most notably Gary Bauer, and William Kristol and fellow editors at the Weekly Standard -- willing to publicly express dismay at the near-kowtow Bush assumed in order to secure the release of the Americans held hostage by the Communist dictatorship. And rumbling just beneath even some positive assessments of the president's performance appear to be at least a veiled critique of this, Bush's first major test in international diplomacy. "I continue to believe that if President Gore had sent such a letter, a lot of my friends would be taking a different response to the administration's approach to this," says Bauer, chairman of the Campaign for Working Families.
Though the military men and women were forced to crash land their EP-3 spy plane in Chinese territory after Chinese pilot Wang Wei crashed into them, and though they were detained for 11 days, Bush's letter said that the U.S. was "very sorry" twice. "I don't think anyone's disputing the facts that we were in international airspace and that it's inconceivable that our plane bumped their plane," Bauer says. "To apologize for the forced landing of our plane on their territory is just incomprehensible to me."
And despite generally sycophantic media treatments of how Bush handled the crisis, there is some indication that other countries believe Bush blinked. In the United Arab Emirates, China is now being held up as a role model. "Washington's doubt apology to Beijing [sic] ... embarrassed the US administration," writes Dubai's Al Bayan newspaper. "China's insistence on obtaining a U.S. apology of a valuable lesson and Arabs and others should learn from it carefully and benefit from it if they want to break the U.S. arrogance ... We need to draw lessons from China's policy, which stood firm and got what it wanted at the end of the day."
That, critics say, is exactly the message Bush didn't want to send. "It should be a while before we forgive the Chinese for what they made us do, which is basically to get us to endorse this falsified version of events, to enter this Orwellian world," says David Brooks, a senior editor at the Weekly Standard, one of the few conservative critics of Bush's reaction to the China crisis. "From here on out there's a sense that we're going to be tougher on China."
Frank Gaffney, director of the Center for Security Policy and a former assistant secretary of defense for international security policy in the Reagan-era Defense Department, also expresses disapproval of how the Bush administration handled the crisis. But, Gaffney adds, he's trying to reserve judgment in the hope that Bush will offer a "greater and clearer enunciation of the strategic problem China is becoming," now that the crewmembers -- whom he refers to as "prisoners" -- are released. "I will feel a lot better about this exercise if that ensues," he says.
Because of the "engagement" strategies of previous administrations -- he refers to Clinton, but he also means the previous Bush administration -- "the Chinese have been conditioned to think that whenever they push, we'll yield," Gaffney says. "They needed very, very strongly to be signaled that this is a new team, [and] it is not going to be business as usual." That didn't happen, and the Bush actions, as of yet, continue to add to China's "present misperceptions that the U.S. will continue to yield when they push, and we will continue to accommodate them when they misbehave."
Brooks agrees, and says that it hasn't been a day at the ballpark to be a conservative criticizing the president.
"It's lonely out here," he says. "But there are two ways of looking at the world. One is: You don't have political friends, you just have ideas. The other is: You want to support your friends."
But Brooks says that if you look closely at what his fellow Republicans are saying, you can discern that not all are as pleased with Bush's reaction to this crisis as you might think. "If you look at a lot of the conservative commentary, there is a subtext of criticism," Brooks says. "There's sort of a two-step on the typical position -- first there's an endorsement of Bush. But second, there's a lower-voiced comment, a sort of 'Gee, this was not exactly Reaganesque.'"
One such interesting adventure in parsing can be had by exploring the statement issued Wednesday night by Bush's nemesis, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. The URL of the statement even contains the word "hostages" -- language definitely not on the White House program. [Editor's note: After this story was published, the URL was changed from "hostages" to "aircrew."]
Saying that he's "relieved that the twenty four Americans held by China for eleven days have been released," McCain -- a military hawk -- slams the Chinese government's "inexcusable conduct, its reprehensible detention of our air crew as it dishonestly attempted to shift blame for the mid air collision to the United States from where it rightfully belongs -- with the Chinese policy of dangerously challenging our lawful and essential surveillance flights in international airspace over the South China Sea."
After a list of his reasons for such seething anger at China's actions, McCain almost seems to admonish Bush. "We must avoid, at all costs, giving Chinese leaders the impression that they will profit by challenging America's global responsibilities and substituting demagoguery and hostility for ... respect and understanding," he writes.
In the statement's one reference to the president, McCain concludes: "I am confident President Bush will instruct American officials to make our position clear to their Chinese counterparts at the earliest opportunity."
McCain staffers strongly deny that McCain meant any slight against Bush in his statement, just that it was focused on Chinese behavior. McCain -- quite uncharacteristically -- was unavailable for comment, a situation usually reserved for times when his "straight-talking" could get him into trouble. Such as, for instance, if he thought Bush whiffed it on China, but didn't want his opinion on the matter to be cast as another episode of Bush vs. McCain.
Which would be unfair, because there's a clear school of conservative thought that disapproves of Bush's handling of his hostage crisis. "Kristol and Brooks and myself -- and others -- are going to do everything we can to help the administration come to grips with fact that China is not first and foremost a trading partner, but rather a rival at best -- and perhaps on its way to being something much more serious," says Bauer.
"The question I ask myself is: If you're a Chinese pilot or general or on a certain Chinese ship, is there any reason this morning to be less provocative and aggressive than we've seen in the last few months? My answer is no," says Bauer. "They knocked an American plane out of the sky, they kept it and they paid no price for it."
Conservatives around the country, Gaffney argues, just don't necessarily see it the same way as those within Washington's 202 area code. "I think there are millions of Americans who feel the way I do," Gaffney says. "I was interested to read about the thousands of people hammering Kmart over fact that it's selling Chinese goods. The vast majority of the American people feel deeply apprehensive about what China's up to." Maybe not in Washington, he allows, where "a bunch of business interests and inside-the-Beltway elite types" run the China policy -- men and women "who are, I think, out of touch with that common-sense view of China."
Bauer agrees. "I think there's a lot more concern at the grass roots than even I would have expected," he says. At the end of each workday, Bauer sends out an e-mail to a list of 40,000 supporters, and he was surprised when his criticisms of the administration were met with "90 percent positive" responses.
"The same response happened with Rush [Limbaugh]," Bauer says, referring to the conservative radio host's Wednesday show. "Rush began his show by profusely praising the deal, and he got clobbered with calls saying he was wrong. I think it's indicative of a real split between the fundraising wing of the party" -- which has a financial stake in opening Chinese markets -- "and the grass roots. There's a fear of offending the moneyed interests that provide a lot of money to the party, and the members of the House and Senate.
"Not to mention," Bauer adds mischievously, "the Washington think tanks."