At the Whidbey Island military base, north of Seattle, they hauled out the bunting, struck up the band and saluted the old red-white-and-blue when their boys (and girls) came home from China. It was, by all accounts, a stirring occasion, filled with the patriotic pomp and tender reunions that Americans do so well, and one hates to cast a pall over the genuine happiness and relief of the Navy fliers and spyers and all their families, friends and neighbors.
Still, it must be noted that despite the bands and hugs and little American flags, these men and women are not exactly heroes. They are soldiers and aviators who did their jobs admirably under intense pressure, but nothing that transpired off the coast of the China truly smacks of heroism or nobility of spirit. There was discomfort, yes, and inconvenience—a Chinese barracks on Hainan Island isn’t quite the Charles Hotel—but never once, it seems, were our captive countrymen required to go beyond the call of duty, or endure anything more onerous than sleep deprivation.
Yet the quasi-heroic, flag-draped welcome, and the way that U.S. diplomacy throughout the last few weeks treated “getting our people home” as its primary imperative, points to a peculiar and even dangerous trend in the way we, the world’s sole great power, conduct ourselves in foreign affairs. Whether it be in Bosnia, Somalia or now the South China Sea, there seems to be nothing so important to our policymakers as the terrifying worry that maybe, somehow, American soldiers might lose their lives overseas. First in the Clinton years, and now under Bush the younger, we are willing to take a hard line with our enemies—but only when there is no risk of losing so much as a single, ever-so-precious American life.
It is this zero-casualty logic that forced us from the bleeding streets of Mogadishu, that compelled us to wage a virtual war from the sky over Milosevic’s Serbia without even admitting the possibility of sending in ground forces, and that has now created the bizarre situation with our Chinese “friends,” in which the most powerful nation on earth has made an apology to a government whose reckless pilot forced our aircraft from the skies and then held our crew as, well, hostages.
Our carefully worded letter to the septuagenarian dictators in Beijing was not, as some of the more extreme critics would have it, a “national humiliation.” It made us look weak, yes, to declare that “we are very sorry the entering of China's airspace and the landing did not have verbal clearance,” when the reason that we entered their airspace in the first place was to make an emergency landing after a Chinese fighter smacked our plane in mid-air. But weakness and humiliation are different things, and we should be able to make up the lost ground by taking a harder line on matters like weapons sales to the “renegade province” of Taiwan, or Beijing’s bid for the 2008 Olympics.
The real question, though, is why this harder line wasn’t taken before our airmen were allowed to come home. In an incident where the Chinese pilot, not our crew, was to blame, why did the Bushies even take seriously the Chinese demand for an apology from us? Why did it seem that from day one the United States, the most powerful nation in the world, was working from a position of weakness vis-a-vis China?
After all, for all the economic strides China has made in recent years, they remain an overpopulated, underdeveloped nation with a huge but underequipped military that would be chewed to bits by our armed forces should a confrontation ever arise. And on the world stage, an oppressive state making the transition from Maoist Marxism to an Asian version of fascism should hardly be able to muster the diplomatic clout wielded by the American republic.
Why, then, when the Chinese demanded that we kowtow to their interpretation of events, did Colin Powell not say, Look, folks, It’s like this. Either you give us our people and our plane back posthaste, or we start shipping Aegis-equipped destroyers, Patriot missiles and submarines to Taiwan tomorrow. Oh, and we’ll start arm-twisting at the IOC, and you can forget about throwing your personal, Forbidden City version of the ’36 Nazi Olympics come 2008.