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How Did President Bush Handle His First International Crisis?

Aired April 12, 2001 - 19:30   ET



LIEUTENANT SHANE OSBORN, SURVEILLANCE PLANE MISSION COMMANDER: On behalf of combat reconnaissance crew one, I'd like to thank you once again, and God bless America.


BILL PRESS, CO-HOST: Tonight, the spy plane crew comes home. How did President Bush handle his first international crisis? And what's the impact on future U.S.-China relations?

ANNOUNCER: Live from Washington, CROSSFIRE. On the left, Bill Press. On the right, Robert Novak. In the CROSSFIRE: Republican Congressman Chris Smith of New Jersey, member of the International Relations Committee, and in San Francisco, Democratic Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, ranking member on the Intelligence Committee.

PRESS: Good evening. Welcome to CROSSFIRE. How sweet it is for us, and how sweet it must have been for them to step foot back on U.S. soil. Our 24 American servicemen and women now in Hawaii. And, from there, after a couple days briefing, back to home base and their families for Easter Sunday.

Ignoring criticism from some conservatives that he was too soft on China, President Bush welcomed the captives' return by pledging to continue reconnaissance flights off China and insisting, once again, the United States did nothing wrong.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: From all the evidence we have seen, the United States aircraft was operating in international airspace, in full accordance with all laws, procedures and regulations, and did nothing to cause the accident.


PRESS: And one of the crew celebrated his return by calling his girlfriend and asking her to marry him! She accepted. Congratulations!

Now, for the U.S. and China, comes the hard part. What comes next? Should we cut back on trade with China? Defy them by selling new arms to Taiwan? Or just proceed with business as usual and pretend that nothing happened?

Tucker Carlson joins me doing double duty tonight, SPIN ROOM and CROSSFIRE -- Tucker.

TUCKER CARLSON, CO-HOST: Oh, yes. Congresswoman Pelosi, let's talk about ambassador Prueher's letter to the Chinese, which is, of course, the official U.S. position on all of this. First, it says, we are very, very sorry for landing a plane the Chinese knocked out of the sky on a Chinese airstrip without first asking permission. And then comes my -- personally my favorite line in the whole thing: "We appreciate China's efforts to see to the well-being of our crew." In other words, great room service! Thanks, loved the inn room movies.

Now, this is not an apology. This is a parody of an apology. It's embarrassing. How can you defend this?

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: Well, I think it's a letter that could have been written the first day, and if the Chinese were sincere about wanting that level of regret, they would have accepted it.

I think it's a clear indication that the Chinese were controlling the timing on this whole incident, and until they have had enough time to attempt to humiliate the United States in the eyes of the Chinese people, until they had enough time to size up, to collect their own intelligence from our crew and our plane -- whatever they could learn there -- that they were not going to accept a letter of regret.

But it isn't a letter of apology, and I think has to be very clear. What they said they wanted was a letter of apology about flying -- about a spy operation. As president has said, and is so, we were flying over international waters in a clearly marked U.S. plane. We have every right to do that. We owe no one an apology for it. They didn't get that apology.

But this letter that they got is interesting to me, because again, it's a letter that could have been written 11 days ago, but they didn't want it 11 days ago. I think the apology -- demand for an apology was a ruse to give them time to accomplish some of their domestic goals.

CARLSON: Well, if it's not an apology, it's awfully close. But let's talk about the ramifications of sending a letter like this. The idea, some people are saying, is if you allow yourself to be pushed around once, you are going to get pushed around again.

And I have a piece of, I think, evidence here: let me read to you briefly from an editorial that appeared today in "Al-Bayan," which is an Islamic newspaper published out of Dubai. Today, it said: "China's insistence on obtaining a U.S. apology is a valuable lesson. Arabs and other should learn from it, and benefit from it if they want to break U.S. arrogance. We need to draw lessons from China's policy, which stood firm and got what it wanted."

It goes on to describe Ariel Sharon as a terrorist, but doesn't this set a terrible, terrible precedent to rogue states around the world that they can just box the United States around, and we're going to send them letters thanking them for the room service when they take hostages?

PELOSI: For sending out for Chinese food? Well, I think that it is important to note that we had to get -- our first priority was to get the crew home. These are brave, courageous, patriotic people. The airman -- the pilot was a hero to land a disabled plane and save all those lives. And I think that that was our top priority. We did what it took, short of an apology, to do that. And that was our goal, and we succeed in our goal.

I think anyone in the rest of the world who reads anything into this, does so at his or her own peril. Because clearly, we didn't apologize, clearly we reserved the right to fly over international waters, and the Chinese did not change any of that. I don't think that there is any precedent here, and I would have been on the lookout for it, believe me, because I thought -- it sounds like you want to move on.

PRESS: Just want to bring Congressman Smith in here. Congressman, welcome to CROSSFIRE.


PRESS: Let me ask you, the last couple of days consisted mostly of a course of praise and condemnation for the president -- commendation, rather, for the president, and also there has been some condemnation from those particularly on the far right. I have heard the word "appeasement" used, I have heard the word "kowtow," I have heard the word "weakness" uses. Do you believe that George Bush rolled over too easily?

SMITH: Not at all. I think the president had a very measured response, which could have been an even worse crisis than it ended up being. What was first an accident, became an incident, and unfortunately the Chinese miscalculated. They lost. The prime objective of President Bush was to bring back those 24 service people, the secondary objective was to bring back the plane, and to do both of those objectives without apologizing, which would lead to, I think, a catastrophic consequence in terms of world affairs.

Others, like more radical Islamic organizations and groups would feel that they've taken the measure of George Bush, and he came short. That didn't happen. And they can try as best they can to put a spin on it.

We're also coming out -- this needs context. We have had eight years of aggressive appeasement, eight years when President Clinton did his MFN linkage to human rights. I, as a Republican, was first out the blocks, Nancy Pelosi was right there, Gephardt -- all of us were saying, great job, Mr. President, you have put principle above profits.

One year later, when it was significant regression, and you might recall the boiler plate language in that executive order of Bill Clinton, was significant progress. He ripped it in half, and from then on, the appeasement was aggressive.

PRESS: Well, I'm glad you mentioned Bill Clinton in that context. I agree with you that President Bush handled this situation fairly well, very well. But I want to you listen to something that Senator Biden had to say last night on "LARRY KING LIVE" about George Bush and Bill Clinton, please.


SEN. JOSEPH BIDEN (D), DELAWARE: I am really pleased, quite frankly, it happened with a Republican president. Otherwise, my conservative friends would have eaten alive Bill Clinton had he done this.


PRESS: That's the point. George Bush did exactly what Bill Clinton would have done, and if Bill Clinton had done it, you would be on his back, wouldn't you?

SMITH: Absolutely not. Absolutely not...

PRESS: You just accused him of eight years of appeasement!

SMITH: We've had eight years, but the first year -- let's say it's seven, seven-and-a-half. The first year, he laid down makers and then took them back. You can't do that in domestic policy, you certainly can't do it in international policy.

I disagree with President Bush's position on normal trading relations with the PNTR. I disagree. I have a fundamental gulf between my views -- and many of us have that gulf -- with the president, but I respect his opinion. The problem with the previous administration was the enormous flip-flop that occurred, which gave the dissidents, unfortunately, almost hopelessness about -- we have been abandoned.

We need to speak very clearly. Right now, I just returned from Geneva, lobbying some 19 different delegations, as part of the U.N. Human Rights Commission. George Bush, the president -- and backed by the Democrats, Tom Lantos, Nancy Pelosi, all of us are behind the president on this -- have a very strong resolution of condemnation for China's egregious human rights policies, which tortures, maims, forced abortion, the crackdown on religious believers, including the Falun Gong. Most people may be unaware of the fact that 100 Falun Gong practitioners were tortured to death last year. That is a horrific policy, and it is ongoing.

CARLSON: Now, Congresswoman Pelosi, you said that our first goal in this crisis, of course, would be to get the release of these 24 servicemen and women. It strikes me there was leverage, not just some groveling letter that was sent 11 days later, but leverage right from the start, and that, of course, is economic leverage. The "New Republic," a liberal magazine, has an editorial that came out a couple hours ago that points out the United States buys 33 percent of China's exports. We buy 1 percent of theirs. If that's not leverage, what is? And yet, you didn't hear anybody suggest -- not liberals, not conservatives, from the very beginning -- why don't we impose sanctions? Why didn't anybody say that?

PELOSI: I think you had the figures reversed. We buy more than 1 percent. We buy 33 percent of theirs.

CARLSON: I beg your pardon, we buy 33 percent of China's exports, exactly.

PELOSI: Well, as you know, there has been a reluctance to use economic leverage for human rights, for stopping the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and indeed, even to use economic levers when they violate trade agreements.

But I do think that the noise coming from the far right, criticizing the president, really was useful to him. It gave him leverage, I think, in this debate of saying, there are those who would want me to speak in a different way on this -- and I think that that might have even contributed to the problem, if he said something more inflammatory.

CARLSON: But wait a second. This is the new republic saying this. Hardly (UNINTELLIGIBLE) if you ask the question, why not economic sanctions? And that's my question to you. Why not?

PELOSI: Well, it's all right with me, but they just haven't been successful. You know, don't underestimate what -- in yesterday's -- two days ago, "New York Times," they had an article about how Kmart was considering getting new suppliers other than their Chinese suppliers because they were hearing from their customers that they didn't want to buy Chinese.

That probably was as eloquent a message to the regime as anything they heard or received in a letter, because of that kind of a boycott that was spontaneous among the American people. The Chinese went on to new territory when they held our servicemen. We can debate the pros and cons of economic leverage sanctions, trade proliferations, human rights, but when you take our people and detain them, they shouldn't have been detained 11 minutes, much less 11 days. They struck a different cord and a different nerve in the American people and I think it's going to take a long time to heal that.

PRESS: Just before we take a break, Congressman Smith, I would like to get your comment on trade relations. I mean, trade with China does mean jobs for American workers, it means profits for American investors, it means links to democracy in China. Do you think...

SMITH: I think we need to condition trade on progress in the area of human rights. If the Chinese knew that their $84 billion trade deficit with the U.S.-- and that was the last available figure -- was put at risk, and they might lose that kind of ability to get all of our high-tech, which is what they get, and we get all of their finished products and consumer goods -- but the balance of trade is $84 billion dollars. If they thought for a moment that that in serious -- or even, not so serious -- just in jeopardy, I think they would make at least on the margin some changes in its human rights policy. And people like Chi Haotian, who is the defense minister, the butcher of Beijing, the man who is operationally in command of the killing of students and protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989, he's now defense secretary.

He has been in ascendancy over the last decade and now, calling what is going on. Li Peng, and of course, Jiang Zemin. Remember that name: General Chu (ph). He ordered that crackdown. We had a hearing. He came to this country in 1996, got a great reception from the administration. He said nobody died in Tiananmen Square. If you believe that, I will sell you the Brooklyn Bridge.

CARLSON: And happily, we don't. We will be back with Nancy Pelosi and Chris Smith. What next for China? We'll tell you, next on CROSSFIRE.


CARLSON: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE.

They're home. But at what cost? Some say George W. Bush's amounted to appeasement, an invitation to further acts of aggression. Will the U.S. take a tougher line with China in the future? If so, what is that likely to mean? We'll talk it over with two longtime China-watchers in Congress: Nancy Pelosi, Democrat of California and Republican Chris Smith of New Jersey -- Bill.

PRESS: Congressman, there were some suspicions among many people there was a deal here. We don't know what the deal was, but we made a deal to get them home. Part of deal was, we know, a meeting next week, April 18th between Chinese and United States. There will be several items on that agenda. One of them is reconnaissance -- U.S. reconnaissance flights off the coast of China.

President Bush today said we will continue them. Now, they had been suspended since this accident occurred. Do you think those flights ought to just go right back up there?

SMITH: Frankly, I feel they should. It's important that we have ongoing surveillance and the best way to prevent war by miscalculation and then, God forbid, if anything ever does erupt, in going forward in a way that is least likely to injure your own troops is to have good solid reconnaissance -- information about all aspects of potential adversary.

Thankfully, our planes were, you know, as we all know, in international space. There was no violation there. We have every right -- and I think duty to world peace -- and peace in the region to be there collecting this valuable data.

PRESS: All right, for the last two months, though, there've been more flights on the part of the United States and more attempts on the part of the Chinese to intercept -- we have some photos here -- we'll just roll as we're talking -- that shows how close these planes are coming to the United States reconnaissance flights.

I mean, look -- I'm not defending them -- they are obviously playing cowboy, but we also are out there as targets. By continues these flights in the same area and stepping up these flights, aren't we just begging for another accident worse than this one?

SMITH: One of the agenda items that is on the docket for the 18th is to talk, how to prevent these kinds of accidents. And one of them would be to have a buffer zone, a space area, that, you know, a certain amount of yards -- hopefully, it's many yards, so the planes...

PRESS: Miles.

SMITH: A fighter. One of my brothers used to be a fighter -- a pilot. The speed -- maneuverability, so far exceeds an EP-3, it isn't funny. So, I think as we get more into this, people will realize, when it comes to blame, it is really the Chinese that owe the Americans an apology for the hot dogging that took place. It wasn't the first time, and hopefully it will be the last time.

I think a buffer area, a zone, that is mutually agreed upon by the People's Liberation Army and the people of the United States, is one way of handing this.

CARLSON: Miss Pelosi, you know obviously quite a bit about human rights (UNINTELLIGIBLE) spent a lot of time working on that subject. One fact of the day: there are now 20 American citizens and green card holders being held in China. Doubtless, you know that. But it raises the question -- clearly, economic growth does not necessarily lead to political freedom. But in the very same region, you have this country Taiwan, that's achieved both economic growth and political freedom, which makes me wonder, why are we still hoeing to this one China policy that portends now that they're one country? Why aren't we explicitly supporting Taiwan as its own distinct country, because of course, it is.

PELOSI: Well, I think that the one-China policy is probably a good way to go. What that one China is, is another question. Even many in Taiwan support a one-China policy.

But I want to get to the basis of your question, which was the economic growth does not necessarily lead to political freedom. And certainly it hasn't in this case. It's been 12 years since the Tiananmen square massacre. They told us then if we just encouraged economic growth that it would lead to more political freedom. It has not.

At that time, when Chris and I, others were trying to use economic leverage, the trade deficit with China for that -- reported from the year before was $2 billion. The U.S. buys $2 billion a week now from China, for a projected trade deficit for this year -- will exceed probably $100 billion. This is incredible. We couldn't use the leverage when it was 2 or $3 billion, for fear that somebody in our country would lose an economic opportunity. I am addressing this because Bill was putting forth that the economics were so good for our own economy. But the fact is, that's not true. There are some exporting elites who benefit from the policy that we have now. By and large, most products made in America cannot access the Chinese market. That's why the move for the WTO. But the Chinese have not honored their bilateral commitments there, either, so -- in order to get into the WTO.

So it just goes on and on. But most products made in America have no access. Motorola, Boeing, there are some that have access, and for those exporting...


PELOSI: We squander our economy. Our trade opportunities, we squander our values, in terms of promoting democratic freedoms. And we squander our national security.

PRESS: You wanted to add to that?

SMITH: I just want to add to it in the most strongest of terms. We're also conveyed to the Chinese military incredible gains in their -- in the technological area. Their commanding control, their ability -- the targeting capabilities of their missiles now have been exponentially enhanced by Loral and some of the other industries that, when there was a problem with their missiles, ran over to China and said, "Hey, we can fix that." That has -- there are so many dual-use military items that now put Americans at risk...

PRESS: Let me just cut through. So I hear you talking, what you're saying is they're the enemy, we just ought to cut off all relations with them.

PELOSI: No, no, Bill. I'm reclaiming my time.


SMITH: Let me just say, Nancy.

The Chinese government is at war with its own people. Human rights have deteriorated to the point where torture is routine. That's what we've got to address. If they start democratizing, then we're on the road towards a much more friendly relationship.

PRESS: Go, Congresswoman, you get the last words.

PELOSI: OK, here's what I'm going to say. You are falling into the trap that has been established by those who would like to describe this debate as those who wish to isolate and those who wish to engage. Of course we want to engage, but in a way that sustains our values, our economy, and our national security. Not on China's terms, but on mutual terms. And don't -- please don't fall into that trap, because what would they want to isolate? It couldn't be farther from the truth. We have the best interest of the Chinese people at stake.

PRESS: When Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi speaks, I always listen. Thanks so much, Nancy, for being with us tonight. Congressman Chris Smith, thank you so much for being here.

PELOSI: My pleasure. Happy Easter.

PRESS: All right. Happy Easter to both of you.

PELOSI: And isn't it wonderful that the crew is home!

PRESS: Yes, it is, indeed.

And Tucker Carlson and I, we will be back with some closing comments on where we go from now with China.


CARLSON: Bill, my favorite line to come out of the administration in all of this was in "The Washington Post" this morning -- quote -- "We don't need to be pointing fingers." To which I say: Of course we do. We need to be pointing fingers directly at the government of China -- knocked one of our planes out of the sky, held its crew hostage. It's appalling behavior, nothing wrong with saying so. Rhetoric is important and we ought to make ours sharp, clear, and direct and honest.

PRESS: Well, I don't think what they did deserves any applause, certainly, but, Tucker, I'm glad for once...

CARLSON: I'm glad you say that, Bill.

PRESS: I'm glad for once that the president does not listen to the hotheads of his party like you or Bob Dornan. I thought he kept his cool here, and what he realized -- and by the way, I think the leaders of China realized, too, is -- that there are more...

CARLSON: That they can push him around.

PRESS: No, no, no.

CARLSON: We like him for his niceness. Please.

PRESS: What they said is the long-term relationship between these two countries is too important to let it all go south over these servicemen. So we kept our cool, and they sent them home.

CARLSON: Then why did they take them hostage in the first place?

PRESS: They would have been home sooner if George Bush had picked up the phone!

CARLSON: So we're bigger for it. OK...

PRESS: From the left, I'm Bill Press. We'll see you later in "THE SPIN ROOM."

CARLSON: We'll be there. Good night, I'm -- for CROSSFIRE, I'm Tucker Carlson. See you again tomorrow night.



4:30pm ET, 4/16

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