Tough Is Not Always Smart

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President Bush during his first news conference at the White House on Thursday

President Bush raised eyebrows and generated headlines at his first solo news conference Thursday when he boldly declared that Chinese experts were in Iraq working on the radars outside Baghdad which were attacked by American and British warplanes six days earlier. "It's troubling that they would be involved in helping Iraq develop a system that would endanger our pilots," Bush said. Although Pentagon sources said the raid was timed to avoid killing Chinese workers, the State Department, based on its evidence, was careful to tiptoe around any allegation that they were working on a military site, saying only Chinese workers in Iraq were "doing work in telecommunications... particularly optical fiber projects."

Not long after Bush spoke, a senior White House official, speaking not for attribution, appeared to clarify things, explaining, "It's a dual use facility," that is, one that has both civilian and military applications. "But it was clear it was being used as part of the integrated air defenses." system." Even commercial fiber optics violate the United Nations sanctions against Iraq. But charging Beijing with helping try to kill American pilots is far stronger stuff, hardly the way to launch a new relationship. That's especially true when Bush's own Republican party is deeply split between conservative China-bashers and pro-business "panda-huggers." Realizing it would be better to formulate a new China policy first, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice was in the White House briefing later that day, trying to dial things back: "I want to make clear that we're not accusing, at this point, the Chinese of anything."

A day later, Bush himself was singing a new tune. During a press conference Friday with Britain's Tony Blair, he proudly reported that, after a demarche from the U.S. ambassador to Beijing about what was going on in Iraq, "We did get a response." And the response was... well, yes and no: The foreign ministry refused to confirm or deny the reports, even though the Americans have repeatedly pressed Beijing on the issue since January. All they said, according to the President, was, "If this is the case, we'll remedy the situation." To critics of Clinton's allegedly soft China policy, that answer sounded sadly familiar. At least three times in recent years, including just three months ago, China has formally vowed to stop selling missile technology to other countries. Twice it broke the promise. But Bush, who started the tough talk, seemed mollified for the moment. "I think you always got to begin with trust until proven otherwise," he said. Memo from the Clintonites, who had their own China woes: Welcome to the real world.