For bringing home 24 Americans from Hainan and helping his boss out of a bind while avoiding turning an incident into a crisis, Secretary of State Colin Powell is our Person of the Week.
President Bush, it must be said, looked awkward and uncertain those first two days of the Hainan standoff. He talked tough, or tough-ish, but that appeared to only ratchet up the rhetoric from Beijing. He'd previously signaled his intention to play hardball with China, and had hoped to downgrade the central role the Middle Kingdom had played in the Clinton administration's Asia policy. Suddenly, here were the Chinese in his face, testing his resolve. And with the immediate fate of 24 U.S. personnel and a relationship of profound geopolitical and economic consequence at stake, there was precious little he could do. By last Wednesday, the President was looking for a way out.
Enter Colin Powell. (Cue the spaghetti-western soundtrack, if you will, because Powell's was a performance worthy of Clint Eastwood.) In contrast to his boss's uncertainty, the secretary of state projected infinite cool: unhurried, unfazed, unblinking and even, occasionally, appearing to enjoy himself, as he took charge of choreographing the diplomatic dance necessary to pull Washington's and Beijing's chestnuts out of the fire.
In the weeks preceding Hainan, Powell had been under pressure from Bush administration hard-liners inclined to see him as an incorrigible dove whose commonsense policies on questions such as Iraq sanctions and dialogue with North Korea were undercutting their saber-rattling. But once the administration was plunged without warning into a situation that threatened to escalate into a crisis, he was the man of the hour.
President Bush had decided by last Wednesday that he wanted the U.S. personnel home as quickly as possible, and to avoid escalating a standoff that had caught both sides off guard. And in his administration's more corporate style of management, the details were Powell's to determine and implement. The CEO had outlined the broad goals; the COO would handle the tactics.
Following the corporate model, Powell delegated the negotiations with the Chinese to his own subordinates, particularly his deputy, Richard Armitage, who met with China's Washington ambassador, and Admiral Joseph W. Prueher, the U.S. ambassador in Beijing. But he quarterbacked the diplomatic game.
The key to resolving the standoff was recognizing the political dynamic on the Chinese side. Plainly, President Jiang Zemin and the modernizers in Beijing who have staked their careers on opening China to the West and integrating it into the world economy had no interest in prolonging a confrontation that could only imperil their achievements. But in the atmosphere of hostility generated in China by the Hainan incident, there was a danger that those modernizers could be eclipsed by hard-liners in Beijing hoping to slow, or even turn back, the clock. A solution depended on Jiang and his allies' being given political cover to back down without appearing to lose face.
From the very outset, then, the objective of U.S. diplomacy was to create a calm and cooperative atmosphere in which the two sides could get on with the business of helping each other out of the mess. Powell projected an unthreatening, businesslike approach, sending out diplomatic feelers every which way to emphasize to Beijing that Washington was in the market for a mutually acceptable solution.
Powell let his subordinates negotiate the details, although he did occasionally intervene to ensure that the phraseology of the final U.S. letter that settled the matter not give too much away. And while diplomats and administration officials painstakingly parsed different drafts of a document designed to satisfy the Chinese clamor for an apology without actually apologizing, Powell became the Bush team's public face on the issue, reassuring America's jangled nerves and coaxing and cajoling the Chinese forward. And that was a role tailor-made for the administration's most charismatic figure, whose soft-spoken self-confidence kept a media-spurred "hostage" panic at bay.
Any doubts over Powell's ability to make the transition from military man to diplomat have long since been laid to rest, and the secretary and his aides show little interest in media gush. They were given an assignment and they completed it, they say. And that's just what they're paid to do.
But in an administration still finding its feet and not yet equipped with a China policy or team when the crisis broke it was a remarkably poised performance. The China standoff, of course, is not quite over, and the hawks who were forced to keep their sabers sheathed to speed the return of the U.S. crew may be inclined to press for a harder line with Beijing on some of the conflicts that both sides must begin addressing as early as next week, each one carrying the risk of further confrontations. Which is why the surefooted diplomatic skills demonstrated by Secretary Powell this week may turn out to be one of the Bush administration's most valuable assets.