By Stan Crock Just before I went to the doctor for an annual physical a couple of years ago, my wife asked me to have the doctor check my hearing. So I told the doctor my wife wanted my ears looked at. "You don't have a hearing problem," he said without hesitation. "You have a listening problem. And I know that empirically because you're the 500th husband who has come in here saying his wife wanted his ears checked. There wasn't a thing wrong with any of them."
This story comes to mind as I tried to figure out just what President George W. Bush was trying to say on Apr. 25, when he made a series of baffling and conflicting statements about U.S. policy toward Taiwan and China. That the President's mind and mouth don't mesh sometimes is well known. But it may be that Bush doesn't listen all that well either. And that causes problems. Indeed, he may have given Administration hardliners an opening to co-opt China policy.
MULTIPLE-CHOICE QUESTIONS. Let's review what happened that day. In an interview with ABC's Good Morning America, Bush was asked whether he would use the full force of the American military to defend Taiwan, and he replied that he'd use "whatever it took to help Taiwan defend herself."
This explicit guarantee was a shift from the strategic ambiguity of the past. To deter China from attacking Taiwan, previous Administrations implied -- but didn't explicitly say -- that they would use force to protect the island. The lack of a clear guarantee was designed to discourage Taipei from provoking an attack by declaring independence. After the interview, Bush huddled with his advisers. A senior Administration official said Bush decided that he needed to make a fuller explanation of his position. Seems to me some of his advisers, after they were revived with smelling salts or finished their EKGs, might have had the same opinion.
So when Bush was interviewed by CNN, he took a different -- and more traditional -- tack. "Our nation will help Taiwan defend itself," he said. "At the same time, we support the one-China policy, and we expect the dispute to be resolved peacefully." A declaration of independence by Taiwan, he added, "is not part of the one-China policy."
Two other revealing interviews Bush gave that day have received far less attention. Reuters news service asked him directly whether the U.S. military would help defend Taiwan. Bush retreated into even more ambiguity: "We will help Taiwan defend herself, and people have got to understand, that's the spirit, and they can surmise what they want to," he said. "They've just got to understand our country will stand steadfast by them."
ALL OF THE ABOVE? Then there was an interview with the Today Show. Host Matt Lauer asked if China should pay a price for holding American personnel for 11 days after a spy plane was downed. His response: "I would hope that we move forward with trade agreements with China. I'd like to make sure, for example, that the Chinese markets are open for U.S. agricultural products, and I think if we're interested in spreading freedom, trade will spread freedom." Is that the way to send a hardline message to Beijing?
Bush's spinmeisters insist that the President didn't make a mistake in his initial statement, and there's no change in the one-China policy. He was just making clear what had been purposely ambiguous before. What Bush wanted, a senior Administration official says, was not a change in policy but a "rebalancing." Bush doesn't need to be briefed, the aide adds. "The President said what he meant to say," the official insisted. "This President really knows what he thinks about the big issues."
Oh, please. The image of Dubya holed up in Austin and Crawford with tomes on Sino-American relations isn't credible. He may know what he thinks, but he often doesn't know what to say in delicate diplomatic dances.
WRONG LINES. What I think happened is this. Bush was briefed and had some good answers for predictable questions. The trouble was: He wasn't listening carefully enough when he got different questions, and then he gave the wrong canned answers. His answer to ABC was a good one for a question about the arms package for Taiwan announced the previous day. Similarly, his NBC response would have been a good one if he had been asked about whether the spy-plane flap should affect economic relations with China. But those weren't the questions asked. He either wasn't listening carefully enough, or isn't agile enough to shift gears when the line of inquiry changes.
Trouble is, Bush's suggestion of a more explicit, harder line was just what hardliners in the Administration wanted to hear. Back in August, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, and Vice-Presidential Chief of Staff and National Security Adviser I. Lewis Libby had signed a letter calling for unambiguous support of Taiwan. But then-candidate Bush issued a more temperate statement that seemed to reject that position.
This time, the hardliners could argue it was the right policy because of China's arms buildup. No admission that Bush flubbed the answer to the question was given. Indeed, on MSNBC on Apr. 27, Vice-President Cheney declared that Washington "would use force, if necessary to oppose" China if it used its military against Taiwan.
"WORDS MATTER." Let's face it: At this early stage of his Presidency, when Bush wings it on foreign policy, he creates problems. When he's scripted, as he was during the spy-plane situation, he does fine. During that crisis, he sent letters to Chinese leader Jiang Zemin (no phone calls during which he might have had to ad lib) and issued prepared statements.
Contrast that with the flap over his comments undercutting South Korea President Kim Dae Jung's peace overtures to North Korea during Kim's Washington visit. As Senator Joseph Biden (D-Del.), the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, notes: In international affairs, "words matter. Nuances matter." Unless the world is ready to set a Dubya diplomatic standard -- as in "Oh, that's just Dubya. We'll wait to see what the staff says" -- we could be in for some rough rhetorical rides. Crock covers national security and foreign affairs for BusinessWeek from Washington. Follow his views twice a month, only on BW Online