The president is already finding serious divisions in his administration and party over the conduct of foreign policy, especially toward China. This revelation is clear even after only three months in office.
The row this month over the downed EP-3E Aries II plane still on Hainan Island brought these divisions to the fore. Whatever decision Bush makes next week on arms sales to Taiwan looks certain to exacerbate them.
Bush received high domestic marks for his handling of the downed Navy plane. He sought to ease tensions with China and ensure the rapid and safe return of the 24 crew members. He succeeded in these aims while projecting to the American public the image of a competent and cool chief executive who delegated key functions intelligently.
But there were clear divisions and strains within his administration on how to deal with the Chinese. The president received strong warnings that congressional Republicans and conservatives with influential voices in the media would not cut him any slack if he stumbled on the issue.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who has emerged as the most powerful and aggressive hawk on foreign policy, was sidelined and even muzzled during the plane crisis. Secretary of State Colin Powell took center stage in handling the negotiations.
The successful outcome in rapidly securing the release of the crew, without giving up electronic surveillance flights in international airspace off China's coast, was a welcome and needed political shot in the arm for Powell. The president had previously pulled the rug out from under him on issues such as dealing with North Korea and not approving Powell's preferred approach of retailoring so-called "smart" economic sanctions against Iraq.
UPI reported this week that Bush is expected to refuse to sell Taiwan next week the Aegis radar defense system it is seeking. That indicates that Bush is tilting further toward caution and restraint - or appeasement - in dealing with China, rather than the more confrontational policies favored by Rumsfeld and his Pentagon hawks.
If Republican hawks found it difficult to stomach the sidelining of Rumsfeld, they will gag on any decision to further put off selling state-of-the-art Arleigh Burke class destroyers equipped with the Aegis missile and air attack tracking radar system to Taiwan. The Taiwanese have pushed hard for these sales as essential to counter the enormous Chinese buildup of land-based tactical anti-ship, anti-aircraft, and surface-to-surface missiles against them.
China has also acquired two Sovremenny-class destroyers from Russia and is expected to buy more. The Sovremennys far outstrip anything the Taiwanese have in their navy, equipped in large part with World War II and Korean War-era U.S. naval technology. Taiwan is desperate to get the Arleigh Burke ships to match them and prevent Beijing winning naval supremacy over the 100-mile-wide Taiwan Strait.
If Bush refuses to sell the Arleigh Burkes to Taipei, he will be fiercely assailed not by Democrats but by conservative Republicans for showing weakness to Beijing. They will also argue he has failed to send China a sufficiently clear and strong message that the United States continues to back Taiwan against any aggression or threat from the mainland through thick and thin.
Bush got an advance warning of what to expect from this direction earlier this month when neo-conservatives William Kristol and Robert Kagan wrote a fierce attack on him in the Washington magazine Weekly Standard for not standing up sufficiently to China over the downed plane.
The Kristol-Kagan attack was widely seen by Republicans in Washington and around the country as being disloyal and unfair against a president of their own party who was grappling seriously with a foreign policy crisis. But the article was a warning to Bush and Powell. It served notice that, if their more cautious policies of dealing with China fail to prevent more crises, or fail to avert any serious mainland threat to Taiwan, the gloves will be off, and hawks in their own party will regard them as fair game.
This especially applies to powerful congressional Republican figures such as Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona and Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of California with long records of support for Taiwan.
Refusing to sell the Aegis-equipped destroyers to Taiwan also flies in the face of two revered Republican traditions and groups of supporters.
It is bad business for the military-industrial complex and high-tech corporations that have been under increasing financial pressure since the end of the Cold War. Building Arleigh Burke destroyers for Taiwan would be secure and lucrative business for them. Also, congressional and neo-conservative Republicans revere Winston Churchill, along with Margaret Thatcher and former President Ronald Reagan, as one of their trinity of modern heroes.
Although Churchill, like Reagan and Thatcher, was in practice a cautious and skilled master of realpolitik, who did not hesitate to ally himself with Soviet dictator Josef Stalin to defeat Adolf Hitler, that is not what they remember about him.
Churchill is, rather, revered for his tough language in standing up to Hitler during the 1930s and warning of the consequences of appeasement. Reagan and Thatcher, who assiduously and successfully courted China as their own counterbalance against the Soviet Union, are also revered for their remembered rhetoric rather than their actual policies.
If Bush in fact does refuse to sell Arleigh Burke destroyers to Taiwan now, he will be keeping his options open still to do so if circumstances change in the coming weeks or months. And even if he approved the sale, given the years it takes to build such technologically advanced and complex ships, the move could do little for Taiwan's physical defense now.
Such a move is likely to prove costly for the president politically. For he is already learning that in the press and on Capitol Hill, he cannot count on the reliable, loyal support that so many previous Republican presidents could take for granted from foreign policy hawks over the past half century.
They have already shown how restive and critical they can be in a minor crisis that was resolved satisfactorily - as far as the president's standing in public opinion was concerned. But if they can do such things when the wood is green, what will they do when it is dry?
Copyright 2001 by United Press International.
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