Both Sides Blink

They were eyeball to eyeball and both blinked. China will send the American crew members back, and the U.S. is sorry a Chinese pilot died and that our plane landed on Chinese soil without permission.

Of all the commentary and chatter that followed the president’s announcement, perhaps the best summation came from a father of one of the crew members, who, when asked about the wording of the U.S. apology-not-an-apology, told MSNBC, “[China] can believe what they want to believe and we can believe what we can believe.”

Just so. And we can know what we know, too.

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It is not unusual for a new president to be faced with an international crisis early on. LBJ had the rolling crisis of Vietnam from day one, as did Richard Nixon. Gerry Ford got Mayaguez, John F. Kennedy the Bay of Pigs.

Kennedy, like George W. Bush, faced his first hard time three months into his presidency. On April 16, 1961, 40 years ago this Monday, U.S.-trained Cuban anti-Castro troops attempted to invade Cuba and overthrow the regime.

Like President Bush, like any new leader but perhaps more than most, Kennedy was preoccupied with showing that he was a man of strength and resolve. He was new in the job, had won the votes of only half the country, and feared being called fearful. And so he went ahead with the invasion, allowing 1,500 men to go up against Castro’s army of more than 100,000, landing the forces far from dense population centers thought to be home to the thousands who would rise up in support of freedom, allowing little air cover, and no direct U.S. military participation.

It was, of course, a disaster, and was over in five hours. The invasion troops were outnumbered and outgunned, hit hard by Soviet MiGs flown by Czech pilots; and Castro, who knew the invasion was coming, had already arrested any Cubans who would have joined an uprising against him. More than a hundred men died and the rest surrendered.

“He chose a minimum of political risk” in planning the invasion, said his biographer, Richard Reeves, “which meant a maximum of military risk.” Kennedy was urged to send in American troops when there was still a chance, but told Nixon in a telephone call that “There is a good chance that if we move on Cuba, Khrushchev will move on Berlin.” A few days later when Kennedy met with Dwight Eisenhower at Camp David, Ike stood by him in public but castigated him in private, saying his thinking was exactly wrong. According to Reeves, Ike said: “The Soviets follow their own plans, and if they see us show any weakness that is when they press the hardest.”

Kennedy accepted responsibility, Castro triumphed, the crisis went away. But of course it never fully went away, because all such disasters have implications. A calculating world was watching, and taking Kennedy’s measure. Eisenhower was right: Three months later, in the dead of night, Khrushchev, emboldened by Kennedy’s failure, put up the Berlin Wall. He gambled that Kennedy would do nothing. He was right.

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That’s the thing about crises; sometimes their biggest impact is on the future. The world watches, takes a leader’s measure and moves, based on its calculations. Kennedy lived in interesting times, and faced many crises. Mr. Bush’s first crisis was not as weighted with high stakes.

In the China crisis, if that is not too big a word for it, Mr. Bush kept his cool and did not turn to bellicosity as the unsure sometimes do. He canvassed the deep Republican foreign-policy bench, sent some confused signals, settled down, announced he would not give in to Chinese demands for an apology, announced a stalemate, and soon thereafter announced an agreement in which the U.S. said it was sorry about the death of the pilot and sorry for landing without permission.

He got the job done. The crew will come home. And so the crisis ends. Mr. Bush’s handling of the crisis was—in a word the Bushes hate, the one that was used to spoof his father—prudent. But one wonders what the world will conclude from his prudence. Some may conclude that he is patient and cool-tempered. Some may conclude he can be rolled. In this sense his crisis was the opposite of Ronald Reagan’s response to his first crisis, a domestic one with international implications. A federal workers’ union said it would break the law and strike for higher wages. Mr. Reagan said: If you do, I will fire you. They struck. He fired them. When the world saw what Mr. Reagan had done with the flight controllers’ union, it began to conclude that the cowboy was not a creampuff.

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Nobody wanted war with China, nobody desired harsh talk and threats. Few desire a deep disruption of relations. A conclusion that ends with no loss of life beyond one pilot doesn’t invite gainsaying. But a conclusion that seems to come with apologies that you said you wouldn’t make—that will be gainsaid aplenty.

The story is played out, of course, against a backdrop that is one big question that the administration will some day have to answer, either through actions or words or both. And this is whether China should be treated as our adversary, or our potential adversary, or a major competitor, or even a potential friend.

But that question is dwarfed by ones that only China can answer: Are their ultimate intentions hostile? Do they see us as the enemy? Why are they engaged in a big military buildup? Do they mean to move on Taiwan? What are their intentions in Asia—are they hegemonic?

There are many reasons to believe the Chinese are a potential threat, and certainly the way they comported themselves in this crisis—from the forcing down of the American plane to its boarding, and the imprisonment and interrogation of U.S. military personnel, straight through to its propagandistic media reports and its attempts to whip up anti-U.S. feeling—underscores a growing Western assumption that their intentions are not benign.

And so one question is what the Chinese will conclude from Mr. Bush’s actions, whether he is an impressive leader or an unsteady hand.

But another legitimate question, brought to you by the Chinese government, is what kind of friendly competitor, what kind of potential friend, what kind of respectful adversary takes the actions they have taken.

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Some good has perhaps come of the crisis. Perhaps I am wrong and misreading things, but my sense is that the American people did not become passionately and sentimentally engaged in the stories of the crew members. We didn’t break out in yellow ribbon madness. We didn’t have a big national wallow, and that is good. The problem with such sentimentality has always been that it put undue pressure not on the ayatollahs of the world but on the Carters, on the leaders of democracies.

And there is also this. The Chinese and the Americans plan to meet on April 19, and perhaps a new candor, after what they have been through together, will come forth.

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For now it doesn’t feel triumphant but it does feel over. It was a first test for Mr. Bush. He didn’t fail, but it will probably become clear down the road if he succeeded in showing anything that it would be helpful to show. The Chinese certainly seem to have revealed something too. And if it was unsettling, it was at least clarifying in terms of who they think they are—and who they think we are. This would tend to strengthen the hand of those in the U.S. who have long argued that China has chosen to be our adversary, and we had better know it.