Spy-plane incident gives boost to Powell

Deft handling may shift balance of power on Bush foreign-policy team toward doves.

The resolution of the China spy-plane crisis has produced at least one apparent winner in Washington: Secretary of State Colin Powell.

In the first months of the Bush presidency, the relatively moderate Powell often seemed at odds with the rest of the administration's foreign-policy team. Whether it was policy towards Iraq, North Korea, or Europe, Powell's initial statements were often contradicted later by harder-line words from equally high-ranking hawks like Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

In the administration's first big test overseas, however, it seems that restraint and nuance carried the day, after an initial burst of aggressive rhetoric. As a result, the country's chief diplomat, Mr. Powell, has increased his standing as a member of the president's national security team, observers say.

"This has definitely strengthened Secretary Powell's personal hand in formulating American foreign policy," says David Shambaugh, a China specialist at George Washington University here. "Prior to this, there were evident cleavages between centrists and hawks and between State and Defense, but this has been managed effectively by Powell."

Of course, one case does not a trend make. But this was a high-profile one, with the potential for a nasty, drawn-out ending, involving a nation of tremendous strategic and economic significance for the United States. It was, say analysts, an important staging ground for Powell, whose roadmap out of the crisis was described by the US ambassador in Beijing as "a key turning point" in the 11-day standoff.

"In my mind, Powell has a feather in his cap, because he managed this well," says Kenneth Lieberthal, the chief Asia adviser to former President Clinton. "But Rumsfeld also has a feather in his cap, because he had the discipline to keep out of it."

Indeed, the Defense secretary was barely to be seen or heard during the run of these negotiations, while it was Powell who first uttered the word "regret," which then progressed to "sorry," and then "very sorry" - all words the president approved.

Mr. Rumsfeld's lower profile during the standoff was a deliberate choice. At a time when the White House was trying to prevent what they called an "accident" from snowballing into a full-blown crisis, President Bush and his aides concluded that the Defense secretary's was not the appropriate voice to project.

Bush's first test

Generally, the administration is receiving high marks from both Republicans and Democrats for its disciplined and nuanced handling of the detainee issue. And many are crediting Mr. Bush, specifically, with having successfully passed his first foreign-policy exam.

Indeed, it's now clear the president had a firm hand on the whole process. He set parameters at the beginning (he would not negotiate on arms sales to Taiwan, nor give ground on surveillance missions), remained informed as events proceeded (his chief conduit was National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice), and personally signed off on the letter that delivered the servicemen and women safely back to US soil.

While he continued with business as usual, keeping to his schedule of trips and promotion of his budget, the standoff was on the front burner of his thinking. He talked on the phone with Army Brig. Gen. Neal Sealock, who met with the crew members, and he wanted to know, for instance, if the crew had Bibles.

Kudos are being given to Ms. Rice, as well, for keeping the administration speaking with a unified voice, and for persuading members of Congress to keep the rhetoric toned down. Although some members, such as Rep. Henry Hyde (R) of Illinois, broke ranks and began calling the detainees "hostages," the term was never embraced by administration officials.

"The administration handled this effectively, though it took tremendous patience and forbearance on the US side," says Doug Paul, director of the Asia Pacific Policy Center here.

But whether foreign-policy moderates like Powell will prevail in the future is far from certain.

Keeping Congress in line

On China alone, it can be expected that anti-China lawmakers on Capitol Hill will want payback for Beijing's detention of the crew and its military's harassment of American reconnaissance craft flying in international airspace.

"I think China has rubbed a lot of skin raw in Washington in the way they handled the affair, and I'm sure Congress will make them feel it," says Mr. Paul.

Likewise, Mr. Lieberthal cautions that Powell could have a hard time keeping the hawks within the administration tethered.

"It would be risky to draw conclusions about Powell's role in the administration after this," Lieberthal says. "Some who are very anti-China will regard this not as a good outcome, but something that showed weakness. They'll keep working at having a tougher line."

Ann Scott Tyson contributed to this report.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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