W A S H I N G T O N, April 9, 2001 -- While Democrats have remained relatively muted in their criticisms of the Bush administration's handling of the China spy plane standoff, conservatives are taking some hard jabs at their new commander-in-chief.
In an unusually harsh four-page editorial hitting newstands Monday, the conservative Weekly Standard magazine blasts the White House in a diatribe headlined "A National Humiliation." Calling President Bush weak in his handling of the Sino standoff, the Standard takes particular aim at Secretary of State Colin Powell, condemning his expressions of "regret" as a policy that caves in to the Chinese just when the the White House should have taken a more hard-line approach.
The editorial, co-written by William Kristol and Robert Kagan, was widely passed around Washington over the weekend and left Bush officials frothing.
Former Republican administration officials are even harsher in their judgment of the new White House team, quietly dismissing national security adviser Condoleeza Rice, Powell and other senior officials for their "complete lack of knowledge when it comes to China" and slamming the "desperation" of Powell's approach.
Publicly, Powell dismissed the criticism as "absurd."
Privately, Bush administration officials were even more firm. One senior Bush official told ABCNEWS, "The editorial is just bulls--t. The conservative critics are going to be proven wrong when the crew comes out of this safely and we hope very soon, with the flights not restricted, with our China policy still intact and with the U.S. still firmly on the side of security in the region."
The official also contends that critics are ignoring the reality of what is happening behind the scenes in negotiations vs. what White House officials are saying publicly.
"They [critics] are just assuming we are giving away the store to China, but I can tell you that it is a very different scenario behind the scene. We say to them 'you want to threaten war with China, fine. But don't do it while we have 24 airmen being held.' That, in our opinion, is just complete bulls--t."
Hard-liners in Congress have, so far, toed the White House line, following private briefings with Powell, Vice President Dick Cheney and other senior officials who have begged members of Congress to not upset the delicate diplomatic dance with China by publicly condemning either Beijing or the White House. Some conservatives, such as Democrat-turned-Republican Sen. Richard Shelby, chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, couldn't resist the opportunity to prove their conservative bona fides by publicly bashing Beijing. Others — including right-wing China foes like Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina, Jon Kyl of Arizona and Sam Brownback of Kansas — have bitten their lips and stayed relatively quiet.
Kristol says he doesn't fault his conservative brethren in Congress for their silence, telling ABCNEWS (where he formerly worked as a political analyst) that he thinks it is appropriate for "people in their position to support the Administration. But it's my job and the job of others in my position to voice criticism when we think it is warranted."
At a luncheon today hosted by the conservative American Enterprise Institute think tank — home of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich — Kristol acknowledged the consternation he is receiving from "my former friends in the Bush Administration" over the editorial.
Kristol, who served in the previous Bush administration as Vice President Dan Quayle's chief of staff and resident hard-line conservative wonk-in-chief, emphasized he wants the airmen returned safely but, he says, "I consider U.S. policy so far to have been a policy of weakness."
Defense of Powell
Fellow hawk Richard Perle, a former Reagan official not known to be a shrinking violet when it comes to communist showdowns, defends Bush's handling of China so far, noting, "If there were any indications the U.S. plane had been deliberately shot down, you would have seen a very different reaction from the White House."
Perle says he is fine with Powell's public expressions of regret — the move that seems to most rile conservatives.
"The government of Beijing struck a posture they now can't get out of. Powell's wordsmithing is helping China to get out of a bad situation they got themselves into," Perle said.
But Kristol isn't backing away from his harsh condemnation of his fellow Republicans in the Bush White House. With a smile, Kristol says, "I regret the incident but I am refusing to say I am sorry."
And you can tell by the smile that Kristol has no regret all.