Lessons from Hainan Island

The President learned to rely on diplomats, not generals. And everyone else learned Bush is tougher than they thought

By Richard S. Dunham

Before George W. Bush became President, his foreign policy experience was limited to a single country: Mexico, just across the border from his home state of Texas. Because of his dearth of diplomatic training, many Americans were watching carefully -- some nervously -- to see how he would handle his first big test.

Well, China has provided him that test, and officeholders and academics across the political spectrum are giving the new President high marks. Senator Tom Carper (D-Del.), a former reconnaissance plane captain, called the release a "victory for common-sense diplomacy." House Majority Leader Dick Armey hailed his fellow Texan's "judgment and leadership." In the end, nothing succeeds like success.

What did Bush learn from his dealings with the Chinese government over the detention of American spy-plane personnel? And what did we learn about the President as a result of his handling of the incident? The answers to both questions are important indicators of the way the U.S. will deal with potential international crises in the future.


  It's clear the diplomatic stalemate gave Bush some serious on-the-job training. He made some mistakes early: sounding a bit too bellicose at first, which spooked the stock market and angered Chinese leaders, and speaking out before his government knew all the facts, which caused him to do a bit of backtracking. "Our initial step was [faulty], putting all the blame on the Chinese," argues David M. Lampton, director of China studies at the School for Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.

But after two days of unsteady stewardship, Bush figured things out. He realized that diplomats -- not generals -- were going to solve the problem. And he realized that he needed to keep a lid on militarists and China hardliners in his own party. By turning down the rhetorical heat, Bush opened the way to a peaceful resolution of a situation that might otherwise have turned into a crisis. In the end, as Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott said, Bush provided "steady handling" of "a tense and frustrating situation."

Now that the President seems to have headed off his first international mess, what conclusions can we draw about crisis management at the White House? Here are a few:

Think "endgame" from the beginning. A senior Administration official says the White House learned quickly that it was necessary to draw up "a game plan you'd like to follow. You set out some principles, and you let the diplomacy work." In the future, the President is less likely to "shoot from the lip" before gathering the facts.

Colin Powell will be the global face of the Administration. When it came to dealing with China, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Vice-President Dick Cheney, a former Pentagon boss, were invisible men. Secretary of State Powell, America's top diplomat, was the front guy. He was measured and firm. This reassured the American public and avoided ratcheting up the rhetoric in Beijing. The White House "wanted State to take the lead," Lampton told BusinessWeek's Paul Magnusson. "Powell did so -- and very effectively. It strengthens Powell."

Bush is one tough guy. For eight years, Bill Clinton wanted everybody in the international community, from Boris Yeltsin to Slobodan Milosevic, to like him. His successor doesn't mind if he gets some people a bit peeved. A senior Administration official said Bush wanted to send a strong early signal to China that he would react negatively to prolonged detention of the spy-plane crew. He then upped the pressure, if not the rhetoric, when he warned that a protracted stalemate would result in long-term damage to the Sino-American relationship. Then, after the crew was released, Bush sent strong signals of displeasure to Beijing. He has left no doubt that there will be consequences for messing with The Man.

A manager, not a micromanager. In the post-crisis "spin" game, some White House officials portrayed Bush as a hands-on manager who took part in every decision for 11 days. That's a bit of an exaggeration. According to one senior official, he was "very good at setting direction," then "letting diplomacy work." Bush, the manager, had regular morning and evening briefings, and he signed off on every important decision, such as the final wording of the nonapology apology. But he let his hired hands do the serious work in the trenches. And he never placed a call to the leadership in Beijing. By contrast, during an early clash between the nations in Clinton's tenure, the ex-President once telephoned President Jiang, but the Chinese leader refused to take the call.

Message discipline. The White House is fanatical about staying "on message." As soon as the situation developed on Hainan Island, the Administration contacted conservative groups to ask them to hold their fire. Many of the leading China-bashers in the GOP held their tongues, despite their outrage at Beijing's actions. In fact, many Hill conservatives mouthed the Administration's lines about diplomacy and patience. By keeping the domestic political situation in check, Bush gave himself more maneuvering room on the international stage.

Allies? What allies? Unlike his Dad, the current President Bush is not inclined to build multinational coalitions to deal with every international crisis. His Administration is much more inclined to go it alone. A day before the crew's release, a top Bush aide said the President had not been consulting with American allies in Europe and Asia. That's a strong signal for the future.

A senior Administration official said China was "an area we did not intend to be the President's first policy foray" into rough international seas. It's true that you can't predict diplomatic storms. But Bush's response to the rough weather is an important indicator of what's to come.

Dunham is a White House correspondent for BusinessWeek's Washington bureau. Follow his views every Monday in Washington Watch, only on BW Online

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht