WASHINGTON -- President Bush emerged from his first foreign policy test with widespread praise for his diplomatic juggling act and low-key leadership style. But the bargain he struck to free 24 Americans from China has left prickly questions unanswered.
The 11-day stalemate ended with Beijing's promise to release the servicemen and women in exchange for a chorus of regrets from the United States.
A U.S. letter sealing the deal says the administration is sorry a Chinese pilot lost his life in the crash with a EP-3E plane. It says America is sorry, too, that the crippled spy plane landed on Chinese soil without permission.
Democrats and Republicans alike congratulated Bush because it was hard to argue with the results: Americans were going free. In his maiden act as commander in chief, Bush waited out the Chinese with a seasoned foreign policy team that never shed its united front.
He was firm, though some said too confrontational. He was soothing, though some said too soft.
''There were two arguments he faced. Those who said anything China wants, we should give them. And those who said nothing China wants should be allowed,'' said Gerrit Gong, Asian director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. ''I think the administration did a good job of walking between the two very difficult lines.''
The deal itself leaves some key questions unanswered, including:
n When does America get its spy plane back? The agreement sets a Wednesday meeting between the countries to discuss, among other things, the plane's fate. Vice President Dick Cheney said the plane ''will need some work'' before it's moved. Other Bush advisers were focused solely on the crew, and suggested the plane would be a worry for another day.
n Will the surveillance flights continue? That issue is on the Wednesday agenda, too, but several high-ranking officials said there had been no change in U.S. policy supporting the flights.
n Did Bush go too far to appease China? Some critics, particularly conservatives, said the wrong country was forced to say sorry.
''China should be the one apologizing, not us,'' said Gary Bauer, a conservative activist who ran for the GOP presidential nomination against Bush.
The president's favored strategy was clear from the crew's first full day of captivity -- he said nothing about the standoff, hoping to avoid inflaming China or the American public. The same goal was in mind when U.S. officials said the crew was ''detained,'' not held ''hostage.''
But China did not respond at first, prompting Bush to demand on the second day that China let U.S. diplomats visit the crew. He raised the stakes the next day, warning that the standoff could sour relations.
Bush thought China needed to be pressured, but some international experts said his rhetoric forced Beijing to make a choice: cling stubbornly to the crew or look like they were bowing to U.S. demands.
''I think the rhetoric got ramped up a bit too sharply at the beginning and that made things more difficult, but I think over the last week the administration struck the right tone,'' said Sandy Berger, national security adviser for President Clinton.
That tone was set during a morning meeting April 4, when Bush turned to his national security team in the Oval Office and said, ''We must be able to find a way out of this.''
A participant who quoted the president said Bush also instructed aides to figure out how to end the standoff in a way that addressed both sides' concerns.
China wanted the United States to apologize and accept blame for the crash, something Bush was unwilling to do because the Pentagon said the Chinese pilot was at fault.
Thus, the Bush team decided to express regret. Secretary of State Colin Powell, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and finally Bush used the word.
Behind the scenes, the U.S. letter outlining a proposed deal was offered to China on April 5 with the word ''sorry.'' Two days later, a word was added; the United States was now officially ''very sorry.''
The final diplomatic nudge came Tuesday when U.S. officials told Beijing that Bush wouldn't let them concede anything more.
The standoff gave new perspective to well-known Bush traits.
His tendency to delegate, sometimes viewed as detachment or laziness, was praised by even Democrats.
Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., said Bush's low-key approach ''lowered the level of significance of the incident'' and cooled tensions.
Mocked for his mangled syntax, Bush read from cue cards -- his aides' typewritten words often scribbled over with the president's own pen -- to ensure the right signals were sent.
Sen. Robert Torricelli, D-N.J., praised Bush's deal but said China also got what it wanted. ''If the goal of the Chinese was to embarrass the United States,'' Torricelli said, ''they succeeded.''
Indeed, Bush may have gotten what he asked for: A deal that addressed both sides' concerns.
Ron Fournier has covered the White House and national politics for The Associated Press since 1993.
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