Young George and the Old Cold Warriors

Don't fret too much for Dubya in his first foreign-policy crisis. Veteran brinksmen in D.C. and Beijing know how the game is played

George Bush the Elder has always been an easy target, with his mangled syntax, lack of the Vision Thing, a wimp factor even after the Gulf War, and the unshakable image as second banana to Ronald Reagan. But America might be feeling a little more at ease today if Poppy the internationalist were in charge of the spy-plane crisis instead of his son, Dubya, who has never ranged far off the domestic range.

Let's not forget: Bush the Elder -- Trilateralist that he is -- bolstered his resume with stints as director of the CIA and ambassador to China. The Kid wobbled from largely unsuccessful efforts at being an independent oilman in West Texas to the happy face of the ownership group that controlled the Texas Rangers baseball team and then into the governor's mansion in Austin, Texas.


  During his reelection campaign, former President Bush famously didn't know what a supermarket price scanner was. During the Republican primaries, President-to-be Bush was sandbagged by a radio reporter who got George W. to reveal the shallow depth of his knowledge about foreign governments.

So now that young George is nose-to-nose with the Falun Gong-bashing, Christian-persecuting, economic powerhouse-sitting autocrats in Beijing, how worried should we be? Should we shiver at the thought of a former governor with limited executive experience having to manage an international crisis like the one now playing out over a downed Navy surveillance plane that collided with a Chinese jet and landed on Chinese soil?

Certainly, Bill Clinton, governor of a state a lot smaller than Texas and essentially a domestic politician when he took office, ran a messy foreign policy shop. But through it all, he managed to keep the Republic out of harm's way. The lesson? Lack of expertise doesn't necessarily mean Bush will blunder us into a protracted hostage situation with China or a land war somewhere else.


  In fact, some critics see the Bush Administration's surfeit of "experience" in key positions as more worrisome than Junior's lack of it. I speak, of course, of the graybeards back in charge of the country -- cranky old cold warriors like Vice-President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

After the pizza-faced, pizza-eating, beer-drinking, dope-smoking, policy-drunk, know-it-all young wonks of the early Clinton years and the strangely pragmatic political operatives who ascended in the later Clinton years, it must have been a severe shock to the Chinese and Russians when they awoke after the Florida recount to find the same steel-eyed faces they had encountered years before staring down from the tiller of state.

It's as if, over a decade after Gorbachev and the fallen wall in Berlin, the West was again confronted with those sour-faced men of the Kremlin in bad hats and long coats, reviewing rainy-day parades of tanks and troops.


  Right now, the Chinese are testing Dubya and using the incident to influence future behavior by the Administration. They very much want to derail new U.S. arms sales to Taiwan. Chinese officials may not yet know the younger Bush, but they are keen to discover if he will bend the way Clinton did. But if Dubya's refusal to apologize for the spy plane incident is any indication, they are likely to be disappointed.

And while the Chinese hierarchy may exploit the situation for its own internal purposes, it's not about to do anything rash. Even with a skittish American President in short pants, the old men of Beijing know better than to push the old men of Washington too hard.

Scotti, senior editor for government and sports business, offers his views every week in A Not-So-Neutral Corner, only for BW Online

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

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