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Does President Bush Need to Take Stronger Action in the U.S./China Standoff?

Aired April 10, 2001 - 19:30   ET



GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Diplomacy sometimes takes a little longer than people would like.


ROBERT NOVAK, CO-HOST: Tonight: President Bush says diplomacy takes time, but is it taking too long? Does he need to take stronger action in the U.S./China standoff?

ANNOUNCER: Live from Washington, CROSSFIRE. On the left, Bill Press; on the right, Robert Novak. In the CROSSFIRE: Democratic Congressman Robert Wexler from Florida, member of the International Relations Committee, and Pat Buchanan, former Reform Party presidential candidate.

NOVAK: Good evening. Welcome to CROSSFIRE. Day 10 of the spy plane standoff, with no end in sight. Army Brigadier General Neal Sealock, the U.S. military attache in China, met with the detained crew members for a fifth time. All were present, and no Chinese were there.

But there the good news ends. The Chinese insist on an apology, and a State Department spokesman said the U.S. has gone as far as it can go. So, no wonder that President Bush indicated it will take a while longer to end the standoff.

But a familiar volunteer surfaced. The Reverend Jesse Jackson said he would go to China to bring the men and women home. President Bush indicated thanks, but no thanks. Secretary of State Colin Powell just said no. Bill Press and I more or less agree that the president, to date, has handled this situation pretty well.

We're asking our guests whether they agree. What should the president do, start a new Cold War? And is the U.S./Chinese relationship worth saving -- Bill.

BILL PRESS, CO-HOST: Bob, first I think it's important to point out, a historic CROSSFIRE. We have the congressman from Palm Beach and the candidate who got the most votes in Palm Beach.

(LAUGHTER) PRESS: I mean, here there are, sitting here side-by-side Pat Buchanan.



PRESS: Pat, when I have to step up and defend George Bush, George Bush must be in trouble. But look, let's back up. From day one of this situation, the president stepped up to plate. He said the United States did nothing wrong with that reconnaissance flight, that our Americans must come home, that our patience won't last forever, and there are going to be serious consequences in terms of our long- term relationship if they don't come home.

Realistically, for the president, not a candidate, the president; what more could he do?

BUCHANAN: Well, that's exactly what he did initially and what he should do. But it's not what he did late last week. From Wednesday to Sunday, we heard talk about regret and sorrow and the pilot's wife indicated the president was a coward, and kept moving toward, very close to a kowtow, Bill.

Here's what the president should do. The president should say tomorrow morning, we have told the Chinese there is going to be no apology at all, for this reason: We do not believe we are in the wrong. Our plane was in international waters. They were doing what they were supposed to do. They were crashed by another plane. They forced down; our plane was stripped; our people are being held hostage. There will be no apology.

I ask the American people to stay with me. It's going take a while to get them back, but I can assure you this, if the Chinese continue to hold them, they will pay a daily price.

PRESS: Pat, it's been 10 days. The American hostages were held in Iran 444 days under far worse conditions. Diplomacy, as the president -- we just heard that little clip of the president, takes time.

BUCHANAN: Well, there's no doubt about diplomacy takes time, but we know what Iran did was the act of a hostile power. The Chinese have been called a strategic partner and a strategic competitor. That's utter nonsense.

They are the ones behaving in a Cold War fashion. They're treating your and my country with utter contempt by holdings against their will 24 Americans who did nothing wrong as hostages until they get an apology they don't deserve.

We ought to lay out the case. We believe we are in the right, and quite frankly, if the president will do that, the American people will support him as long as he needs to get them home. What will not support is any kind of apology or craven behavior. Let us act like a great power. I think we are acting that way, but I do think what Mr. Powell said, the president said from Wednesday to Sunday was a terrible mistake.

NOVAK: Congressman Robert Wexler, nobody -- nobody was tougher in the Florida recount than George W. Bush and you, last time I saw you, you still hadn't gotten over it. You didn't think he was really the president. But are you big enough to say that he is handing this just about right, and it is not a time to be shaking his fist and making accusations at the Chinese?

REP. ROBERT WEXLER (D), FLORIDA: I support the president 110 percent in his diplomatic effort. The president has been restrained. I believe he has acted appropriately as president of the United States. And I guess what I'd like to say is, isn't it somewhat of a change of pace when someone who is so vehemently opposed to the president on his domestic policy can, in fact, as you say, be big enough to say, yes, the president is doing a good job?

But now we need to see what the president is going to do in that the Chinese have not, at least to date, responded appropriately, and I would argue, like Pat argued, the president needs to act decisively to show that there are consequences if they do not return the people in the very near future; consequences such as selling to the Taiwanese what they deserve in terms of their ability to defend themselves, talk about entry into the WTO, the World Trade Organization.

We should have a public campaign against the Chinese getting the Olympics in the year 2008. And let us not forget, and I think this is where I think those of who have opposed giving the Chinese over the years every trade relationship they've wanted, understand who we're dealing with here: a repressive, communistic society. Now, that didn't just happen in the last two weeks because they took 24 American hostages. That happened over a period of 50 years.

NOVAK: OK, now you just used the worth hostage. You are a little younger than I am, a lot younger than I am, but I remember what hostages were in Iran, when they were held by the Iranian government. They were miserable. It was a terrible situation.

They were not in any kind of surveillance plane that crashed. They were in the American embassy. They were hostages. The briefer at the Pentagon today, Admiral Quigley, was asked whether they were hostages or not, and let's listen to hear what he said.


REAR ADM. CRAIG QUIGLEY, PENTAGON SPOKESMAN: It's not a situation you would see with a hostage situation. You also don't see hostages generally being treated very well, and our 24 aircrew are being treated very well by the Chinese. So, the term that we think is appropriate is detainees.


NOVAK: Doesn't that make sense, Congressman, instead of going around and shouting and yelling about hostages and calling back ambassadors and shaking your fist at the Chinese? Isn't it better to be a little cool? They're not hostages, they're detainees.

WEXLER: It is better to be cool, and it's not good to just shake your fist if there is no reason to. But let's not minimize what has occurred here. Twenty-four Americans who did nothing wrong are being detained, call it what you want, against their will, even though the president has expressed his regret, Colin Powell has said ,I am sorry, and those Americans still are not home.

We can minimize the situation if you like. If that helps the diplomatic effort, that's fine. But let's not all pretend that all is just grandeur in China, and everything is wonderful for the 24 Americans. If you were you being held against your will, I don't care what kind of steak dinner they give you, it's not an appropriate.

BUCHANAN: Why do you think they're holding them?

PRESS: First of all...

NOVAK: He doesn't answer any questions.

PRESS: First of all, as Bob said...

BUCHANAN: But you know why they're holding them?

PRESS: ... we are the co-hosts of the show. We ask the questions. I can give you my opinion.

BUCHANAN: It's a rhetorical question. They're holding them in order to extort apology out of the president of the United States, first; secondly to send a message to Asia.

Look at what we did to those arrogant Americans. We knocked their plane out of the sky. We stripped it. We're holding their people hostage. They can't do a thing about it. They've come close to apologizing, and it's sending a message to Asia: We are the power of the future and that's declining power and it's behaving that way because they'll do anything for trade.

PRESS: But the question tonight is what should the president do that he hasn't done? Both of you have indicated stronger actions, but neither of you have been specific. So, I want to put you to it. If you were there, what would you do or what do you think he should do that he hasn't already done?

BUCHANAN: Here's what I would do. First thing tomorrow, maybe not the president, get Rumsfeld, who hasn't spoken, lay out the case. Say there is going to be no apology because we have done nothing wrong.

PRESS: They said that.

BUCHANAN: We are in the right, and they are in the wrong. There is going to be no apology. Next thing you get, is the president can say I understand why Americans are sometimes beginning to boycott Chinese goods. Next thing, he can call on Congress, please suspend PNTR, most favored nation trading status, for China as long as they're holding our people.

We should not deal with them the way we deal with Canada if they are holding our people as detainees/hostage. The next thing the United States should do, should say look, how can we behave in a friendly fashion, go to Olympics with people that behave in a fashion -- a Cold War fashion like this, and that's on the table.

What's wrong with those things? Why not? That's not Cold War. That's simply us making them pay a price for the contempt with which they are treating our country and our people.

PRESS: Let me just point out, $116 billion the United States trades with China. The market sinking, not today, but it has been lately. The economy is shaky, and what you want to do is another $116 billion blow to the American economy.


WEXLER: Let's not put a price tag on 24 humans.

BUCHANAN: Bill, you don't know the economics. You don't know the economics. We sold China $16 billion. They sold up $100 billion. It's their entire economic growth. It's 10 percent of their GDP. If they can't get into the New York -- into the American market, their economy goes right down in the Dumpster. What I'm saying is squeeze. It's our turn to start squeezing them.

NOVAK: I'd like to read you a quote. We will put it on the screen. By Li Jingpeng of Beijing University, and I don't know if people -- if you, congressman, know much about the Chinese. I mean, have you ever been to China?

WEXLER: No, I did not.

NOVAK: I didn't think so. And I would you to hear what he says. He says: "Threats don't work too well. China is a great nation, and it would never be intimidated into abandoning its principles. Chinese people would rather die."

Wouldn't the Buchanan plan be a good formula for never getting those people back?

WEXLER: No, I don't think so. And we in the United States are also a great country, and we should not have to admit a mistake when we committed no sin. That American plane was in international airspace. We now hear reports that the Chinese pilot who passed away regrettably -- this was not the first time he was aggressive, it was probably the third time.

Why aren't we talking about Chinese responsibility for sending up a pilot that came between three and five feet from the American plane, and more likely than not, he could have killed the 24 Americans!

NOVAK: On Tuesday in this town -- that was last night -- there was a reception at the Chinese embassy. And at that, the Chinese officials, many of them, said this is a bump in the road in our relations. We want smooth relations, and the ambassador said we don't consider ourselves competitors, we consider ourselves partners.

Whether those are accurate or not, they come -- these diplomats are not freelancers. You know that, don't you? This is a sign that the Chinese government wants to settle this. War hawks like you, Mr. Wexler, and my old friend Mr. Buchanan, you really -- you can really ruin this effort. And they hear you talking as a congressman -- I hope they are not watching this in Beijing -- they might get the wrong idea!

WEXLER: Well, first of all, partners don't detain people. Partners negotiate. Partners agree that if there is blame to be assigned, have the international commission conduct it, and if they find America to be at fault, then we need do the appropriate thing.

But it is somewhat ironic, Bob, because if this were six months ago, and this were President Clinton, you'd be screaming and ranting that he is vacillating, that he's an a apologist. But now, all of a sudden, because Democrats like you should come forward...


BUCHANAN: He's been a China appeaser for 10 years.

PRESS: And you have been a war hawk for twice as long!

All right, we got to take a break. And when we come back, it sounds like it's time now for a man on the white horse. Could that man be the Reverend Jesse Jackson?


PRESS: Good evening. Welcome back to CROSSFIRE. Strange bedfellow tonight: Bob and I more or less on the same side. And speaking of strange bedfellows, here's another one. The Reverend Jesse Jackson has volunteered to go to China to negotiate the release of our 24 American men and women. Should he be allowed to go?

We continue our debate on China tonight with Democratic Congressman Robert Wexler of Florida and former presidential candidate and former co-host of CROSSFIRE -- he's back! -- Pat Buchanan -- Bob.

NOVAK: Pat Buchanan, I never thought you were president of the Bill Kristol fan club...


NOVAK: ... but he has been on the war path. He wrote this tough editorial, co-signed it in this magazine "The Weekly Standard." And just in case, for people who can't read, he went on television and said the same thing, and let's listen to it.


BILL KRISTOL, "WEEKLY STANDARD": Beginning on Wednesday, when we started expressing regrets, we have gone down a path of national humiliation. We expressed regrets. The Chinese respond by slapping us in the face. It's humiliating and it will have consequences, I'm afraid. This is not something we can just it behind us and move on. It will have consequences for Chinese behavior, and it will have consequences around the world.


NOVAK: Now, Pat, please help me and tell me you are a sane, prudent person who will say that despite the fact that you don't like the Chinese, we are not humiliated and there are no consequences for what has happened so far.

BUCHANAN: I think Mr. Kristol is exactly right on that. Now, what the president did Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, with the prayers and the sorry and the regrets, I think what they did is they sent a message all through Asia that the United States is having its nose rubbed in the dirt, and the United States is making apologies when it shouldn't have done it,

Bob, across Asia, all these countries depend on the United States standing up to Communist China in an event of a struggle of some kind, are getting the message that the Americans are very, very weak in that situation and are being defeated. I think China thus far has won this confrontation.

I do believe this: the longer it goes on, the more we can win it, because they begin to pay a serious price for it. They have gotten their benefit already, and I think if -- you have got to impose some kind of penalty when someone treats a great power with utter contempt and slaps them across the face.

NOVAK: Do you want to follow this little incident with a ruptured trade relations, a cooling off and the invocation of a new Cold War with China? And if not, isn't that exactly where you lead if you follow your course?

BUCHANAN: Bob, you are appeasing people who are engaging in straight Cold War conduct! Look, we gave them $85 billion trade surplus last year, pumped it into their economy, and they turn around and hold our people, and they demand an apology, and they call the president of the United States a coward.

I don't want a cold war with anyone. I don't want a hot war with anyone. But I'll tell you the way to avoid that, is for the United States to behave like a great power. And if they smack you across the face, you smack them back twice. That's the way you avoid these kinds of conflicts.

PRESS: Congressman, the president today moved from calling it a standoff to a stalemate. Sometimes you need somebody, maybe a third force, to come in and break the stalemate. Here's the man, Reverend Jesse Jackson. He was over there -- everybody laughed when he went to Serbia to deal with Slobodan Milosevic. He brought three Americans home. It's a wild card. Why not -- Bush isn't getting anywhere. Why not send Jesse Jackson over, see if he can free these 24 American men and women?

WEXLER: I appreciate Reverend Jackson's offer, but this needs to be handled by the president and the secretary of state.

And I would just beg to differ a little bit with Bob's characterization. This is not a little incident. Maybe it was a little incident 10 days ago. Maybe even seven days ago. But today, after these 24 American service people, who did nothing wrong, are being detained against their will, it's no longer a little incident.

PRESS: I'm going to stick with Reverend Jackson for a second, because he said something today on CNN. Both of you, I've heard you say, "No apology, no apology, no apology." The Chinese are saying, this one little key to getting the 24 men and women home, that we say is our first goal, and that's an apology, and we shouldn't get so tied up in these words. Now, first of all, let's -- before you jump, let's listen to the way Reverend Jackson put it today, please.


REV. JESSE JACKSON, CIVIL RIGHTS ACTIVIST: The difference between "apology," "regrets," and "I'm sorry" is not a good enough distinction to leave the American soldiers there. We should be able to say that if there is an offense, unintentional, a mistake, we apologize.


BUCHANAN: Let me say that is contemptible. That is contemptible. Those men and women we sent over there are in the armed forces of the United States of America. They're being detained and held as hostages, like our POWs when I was in the White House. They were held -- for all four years we were in White House. They didn't want to come home in dishonor. These young people don't want to come home in dishonor.

For the United States to apologize when we did nothing wrong, have the president apologize, would be deeply dishonorable and a disgrace to this country. And Reverend Jackson may not know the difference. He ought to stay out of this.

PRESS: Do you want them home or not?

WEXLER: I want them home, and Reverend Jackson only wants them home, too, and I think his motives are exactly correct. But however, we cannot just bow to this Chinese demand of -- we've already said we're sorry. We've said we regret it. This is a discussion that third-graders have, not great nations.

And how the United States of America should be put in this position without the president saying: "Enough is enough. I want the people home now, and there will be consequences, and here are what they will be. Hear my lips. Read them. These are the consequences." It doesn't mean starting a Cold War, but the Chinese need to know we are dead serious.

NOVAK: We don't need a cold war with China, but we needed you here tonight. Thank you.



NOVAK: Thank you, Pat. Robert Wexler.

WEXLER: Thank you.

NOVAK: And my new best friend. Press and I will be back to talk about, what are consequences of starting a new cold war?


PRESS: Bob, the first thing I have to say is I can't wait until tomorrow night, when you and I get back on opposite sides of this table. I mean, enough is enough. But I do think the cool approach so far has worked at the White House, but, Bob, I remember another southern governor who was bedeviled by Americans held hostage. Sooner or later, if nothing happens, this is going to come back and bite George Bush in the behind.

NOVAK: Big difference is there are very important relations between China and the United States, and the Chinese government knows that. Now, they say, well, what about all those wild men in China talking about an evil president? How many -- what would you think if you listened to Robert Wexler and Pat Buchanan tonight? You'd think that the Americans were ready to go on war. I think the saner has prevailed. Do I like what the Chinese have done? No, but it is not the end of the world, and it is not a great atrocity that has to put us into a confrontational or an adversarial relationship.

PRESS: Well, I would agree that the long-term relationship is too important to jeopardize right now, over this incident.

But, Bob, you know what? I admire your enlightened approach to China. I just wish it applied to Cuba as well. Don't you see the parallel?

NOVAK: When I have time I'll explain the difference to you because you're too opaque to understand it.


PRESS: From the left -- there we go! -- I'm Bill Press. Good night for CROSSFIRE. See you later in THE SPIN ROOM.

NOVAK: On the right, I'm Robert Novak. Join us again next time for another edition of CROSSFIRE.



4:30pm ET, 4/16

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