How the White House Engineered a Soft Landing

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The crew stopped in Hawaii for a Navy debriefing

It was not the kind of good morning that Laura Bush is used to. At 5:40 a.m. last Wednesday, the phone rang in the presidential bedroom. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice was on the line. Chinese diplomats had finally accepted a U.S. letter of regret about the South China Sea air crash that had locked the two countries in 11 days of tense confrontation. The standoff was safely over, the American air crew heading home. The President, still in bed, rolled over to his wife and dryly delivered the news. "Looks like the matter is going to be resolved," he said, according to aides.

"I'll be in in a little bit," Bush told Rice.

"I'll meet you there," Rice replied.

By 6:15, as he strolled into the Oval Office, Bush was concentrating on the logistics of getting the crew home. The difficult diplomacy of selling the Chinese on an artfully limited U.S. apology was, thankfully, behind him. He could begin chewing over simpler problems. How long would it take to refuel the pickup plane in China? What would be the flight path? How long would the plane be on the ground? "He was very aware that we had to be careful in what we said while the crew was still on the ground," says senior aide Dan Bartlett.

Care and caution were the administration watchwords last week as it navigated through its first foreign policy challenge. "Let's avoid making this a crisis," Bush said all week long. "Let's not let this turn into something bigger than it has to be." To keep the posture relaxed, Bush and his team kept his schedule filled with non-China events. He would spend Easter weekend at his Texas ranch. Regular order was the rule.

And control. While the administration worked to construct a diplomatic solution, it was also careful to stage-manage how it all looked from the outside, how it would play in the big daily papers and on the evening news. The projected image: Bush at the helm but smartly hands-off, setting the tone but letting his team of professionals do their job. CEO-style corporate diplomacy — smooth, unhurried, competent, straight down from the top. And no leaks about big decisions by anyone but the boss. Thursday Bush was eating his regular lunch with Vice President Dick Cheney — the veep eating salad, Bush a taco — when the crew landed on American soil. "Good news," Bush said, as the landing was broadcast on a television the two were watching. "Welcome home."

The true welcome, when it came on Saturday, was loud, sweet and a great relief to everyone. At Whidbey Island in Washington State, home base for the squadron, thousands gathered on a crisp spring afternoon to welcome the crew. It was one of those unblemished moments of American patriotism. Navy bands let loose. Under a budding tree, three little girls bedded down for a nap beneath an unfurled American flag. Lieut. Shane Osborn, the pilot who brought the crippled plane safely down, touched a tear from his eye as he walked off the plane and into a heroic cacophony of cheers and music. But he was all smiles as he wrapped his arms around his girlfriend Roxanne Faustino and spun her around in a gesture as old as combat itself.

Getting to the safe arrival was anything but easy. After some initial uncertainty — tough talk at first, then a quick step back to a softer tone — the administration settled on a plan that relied on consistency. Led by Secretary of State Colin Powell, the diplomats took charge. In an early missive to Chinese Vice Premier Qian Qichen, the secret contents of which were shown to TIME by administration officials, Powell proffered gentle regret and deferential suggestions for ways to end the crisis. "I want to take this opportunity to let you know that President Bush is very concerned about your missing pilot," Powell wrote, at a stage when the Chinese were still hunting for Wang. "His thoughts and prayers are with the pilot's family members and loved ones, as are mine and all Americans'."

But Powell turned tough early last week when the Chinese tried to get the U.S. to say it had invaded China's airspace. "We're not going to take that change to the President, and we're not going to accept it," Powell instructed his lead negotiator, Beijing ambassador Joseph Prueher, to tell the Chinese. The U.S., however, in an upgrade of regret, did move from saying it was "sorry" for the airspace incursion to saying it was "very sorry." In the end Beijing complied with every aspect of Powell's initial agenda, except the last of seven bullet points — return of the plane.

That last item may be difficult to achieve. "We probably will get the plane back," a senior Pentagon official says, "but only after the Chinese have wrung every drop of intelligence out of it." U.S. and Chinese officials will meet this week to trade demands for new rules in the reconnaissance game the U.S. has no intention of giving up. Administration sources were quick to say last week that it would be not a listening tour for the U.S. team but a chance to ask what the President called "tough questions."

At home, the administration seemed ready to celebrate a job well done. Skeptics — even Democrats — gave Bush good grades on his first foreign policy test. After the ragged, overly brusque beginning, he had — personally, aides insisted — orchestrated the kind of cool, calm diplomacy that brings results. He eschewed Clinton-style publicity seeking, made no personal calls to China and kept his public role low key.

The new policymakers adhered to the chain of command. Powell laid down and enforced the President's guidelines, then let State Department officials, notably the able ex-Navy admiral Prueher, do the haggling. It probably quieted the Pentagon that all the key talkers were former military men. Rice kept discipline and information flowing up and down the line. But the President also heeded the advice of experienced elders. Henry Kissinger, Brent Scowcroft and Bush Sr. all weighed in. Even these heavyweights, however, danced lightly around the new President. Does anyone mind if I call the Chinese, Kissinger demurely asked an aide. Nope, came the answer, phone away.

In the end the old hands helped Bush understand that a way out required accommodating both sides' sensitivities. So a few carefully chosen words ended a potentially explosive standoff. The dénouement was crafted to exact concessions from both sides but leave each able to claim victory. China yielded on its demand that Washington take full blame and didn't force the U.S. to end its airborne surveillance. The Bush administration used language of regret that earned charges of "national humiliation" from the Republicans' conservative ranks.

While it ended this impasse, the delicate agreement won't bring permanent calm to the volatile relationship between the world's most powerful nation and its most populous one. Indeed, the whole incident has given potent ammunition to those on both sides who prefer hard-edged confrontation to hard-argued cooperation. But being a superpower means knowing when, and exactly how, to say you're sorry — and when to say you're very sorry.

Reported by Jay Branegan, James Carney, John F. Dickerson and Mark Thompson/Washington, Massimo Calabresi with Powell and Jeffrey Ressner/Whidbey Island