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President Bush Apologized to China for U.S. Airmen Held Captive

January 18, 2016

Years from now, Americans will look back at the Iranian hostage crisis that wasn't. One day after 10 American sailors were captured by Iranian patrols after their boats inadvertently drifted into Tehran's territorial waters, our servicemen and their equipment are back in U.S. hands.
But the diplomatic thaw and rapid action by Secretary of State John Kerry that allowed both sides to avoid a confrontation is still too much for President Obama's Republican critics to handle. The usual suspects denounced the White House for images of "America on its knees," for its "apology" to Tehran and because "even Jimmy Carter never got around to thanking the Iranians for taking such good care of their US hostages."
The Republicans and their amen corner might want to rethink their strategy. After all, Ronald Reagan--the American President who actually negotiated with terrorists--tried and failed to secure the release of western hostages held by Iranian proxies even after sending the mullahs in Tehran a cake, a Bible and $500 million in U.S. weapons. And as it turns out, after the collision of an American spy plane with a Chinese fighter jet in international airspace on April 1, 2001, President Bush told Beijing the United States was "very sorry" for the loss of their pilot and for our airmen landing on Hainan Island.

On April 11, 2001, the Bush administration instructed American ambassador Joseph Prueher to deliver this letter to his Chinese counterpart, foreign minister Tang Jiaxuan:

Dear Mr. Minister,
On behalf of the United States government, I now outline steps to resolve this issue.
Both President Bush and Secretary of State Powell have expressed their sincere regret over your missing pilot and aircraft.
Please convey to the Chinese people and to the family of pilot Wang Wei that we are very sorry for their loss.
Although the full picture of what transpired is still unclear, according to our information, our severely crippled aircraft made an emergency landing after following international emergency procedures.
We are very sorry the entering of China's airspace and the landing did not have verbal clearance, but very pleased the crew landed safely. We appreciate China's efforts to see to the well-being of our crew.
In view of the tragic incident and based on my discussions with your representative, we have agreed to the following actions:
Both sides agree to hold a meeting to discuss the incident. My government understands and expects that our aircrew will be permitted to depart China as soon as possible. The meeting would start April 18, 2001.
The meeting agenda would include discussion of the causes of the incident, possible recommendations whereby such collisions could be avoided in the future, development of a plan for prompt return of the EP-3 aircraft, and other related issues. We acknowledge your government's intention to raise US reconnaissance missions near China in the meeting.
Joseph W Prueher

As that tense episode early in the Bush administration showed, terms like "regret" and "we are very sorry" and "we appreciate China's efforts to see to the well-being of our crew" didn't signal weakness, timidity or capitulation. Instead, the resolution simply showed common sense and diplomacy at work. Sadly, in the Republican Party of 2016 both are in short supply.


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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