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World events test a new president

National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice urged President George W. Bush not to call Chinese President Jiang Zemin to settle the spy plane affair.  

U.S.-China plane collision gives insight into how Bush handles a crisis

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- In the hours after the U.S. Navy EP-3 surveillance plane made an emergency landing in China on April 1, President George W. Bush was debating options with his national security team and raised this question: Should he pick up the phone and call Chinese President Jiang Zemin?

  Chat transcript
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National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice advised against it; it would create an air of crisis, she argued, especially if the call failed to secure the release of the 24 crew members and the return of the plane. "Accident, not incident" was the administration's motto at that moment, and it was decided a leader-to-leader call was the wrong approach.

The collision was the new president's first major international affairs challenge -- one he faced with a new team whose members had little experience in dealing with China. And they were taken aback with each passing hour by the hard line taken by Beijing.

"We were very surprised," Rice tells CNN now. "Because from our point of view, this was an emergency landing of an aircraft that had been rammed over international airspace. And so what we really expected was that the Chinese would probably look at the plane and then return the crew."

But Sunday gave way to Monday, and China said the crew would be held pending an investigation.

"We began to realize that something more was going on here and that somehow the Chinese had decided to make this a different kind of issue with the United States," Rice said.

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The White House

Bush's father, former President George Bush, wrote in a farewell note to his successor, Bill Clinton, that world affairs have a way of demanding more and more of a president's time despite any careful effort to focus on domestic policy in the early days of a new administration.

The death of 18 U.S. armed services personnel in a firefight in Somalia was Clinton's early test. Bush has faced several already, including:

 • An escalation of violence in the Middle East.

 • Concern from some European allies about the Bush administration's plans for a national missile defense system.

 • Strains with Russia over missile defense and the Robert Hanssen spy case.

 • The disappointment of South Korean President Kim Dae-jung at the Bush administration's decision to take a more cautious approach toward engagement with North Korea.

Bush also has tried to make his mark in the international arena during his first 100 days. He traveled to Mexico first to symbolize a commitment to improve relations with nations in Central and South America. Breaking from Clinton's hands-on approach in the Middle East, Bush made clear he would not try to set a timetable for peace or force a process on the Israelis and Palestinians, a shift many Arab leaders have privately criticized.

Bush skips 'hoop-de-la'

Bush has taken a more hands-off approach to the Middle East than did former President Bill Clinton.  

But the standoff with China stands out because of the high stakes, and for the glimpses it has offered into the way the president and young administration handle crises -- from the discussion over whether Bush should call his Chinese counterpart to the decision over how to handle the return of the surveillance plane crew.

Some advisers suggested Bush travel to Washington state for a ceremony at the home base of most of the crew members upon their return. The president decided against going, and White House press secretary Ari Fleischer recalled Bush explaining his reasoning during a meeting in North Carolina with the parents of Petty Officer 3rd Class Steven Blocher, one of the plane's crew.

"The president said to them, 'What's important is that your son come home without a lot of hoop-de-la,' " Fleischer said. "And what the president meant by that is that he could imagine no more joyous a moment than a man coming home to hug his wife and his child -- children -- a woman coming home to hug her husband and her children -- and not have to wait for a politician to finish his speech."

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