I’ve read lots of passionate letters from hundreds of readers who have expressed some valid, some not-so-valid, points of view regarding the recent U.S.-China standoff on Hainan Island.

I’m encouraged by that; whether I agree or disagree with a reader’s sentiments, I am always encouraged when I see the American people get riled up and passionate about the very patriotic issue of U.S. national-security issues.

Having said that, however, plenty of readers and not-too-few political and foreign policy pundits have offered up some pretty disturbing thoughts about how President George W. Bush and his foreign policy team “should have handled China” during this recent incident.

Most say things like, “Bush was too easy on China”; “The Chinese got the better of us, again”; and “Bush should have taken a much harder stance against Beijing.”

That last statement bothers me the most because people are making it without looking at the long-term ramifications of such irresponsibility.

Second-guessing our leaders is indeed a pundit’s job, but I’ll tell you, it’s a job that is infinitely much easier and involves far less risk than actually running this country and making those tough decisions for the betterment of 280 million inhabitants of the world’s sole remaining superpower.

In my Thursday column, I expressed my viewpoint regarding the White House’s handling of this incident. Bottom line: I gave the administration an A-plus, and yesterday’s e-mail and punditry notwithstanding, I haven’t changed my mind one iota.

In that same column, I also gave my opinion about what the Bush administration should probably do regarding China policy in the future; I felt they were well-reasoned arguments and would be rationally conducive to the enhancement of U.S. strength and American national security in future dealings with a country I believe to be our biggest competitor, near- and long term. So, I’ve no need to rehash any of that.

What I would like to address, however, is this “we should have been tougher” argument because I believe it is a dangerous and reckless thing to be advocating.

First off, few of those types of comments offered concrete solutions and alternatives. Simply saying, “Hey, man, Bush shoulda taken a much harder stance against Beijing” doesn’t cut it; that’s mega-grandstanding, and it doesn’t take a whit of thought to say.

But in response to them, I ask: Precisely what would a “much harder stance” have entailed? Additionally, what would have been the consequences of a “much harder stance”?

If the Bush team had simply told the Chinese to go jump in a lake when Beijing “demanded” we apologize for everything or else, our crewmen would still be held on Hainan Island; economic sanctions against Beijing would surely have followed before long; our own economic position would have been weakened; and a much more confrontational climate with China would have been born.

The longer the crewmen were held in Beijing, the louder Americans would have yelled for Bush to “do something” to get them back. Such calls for action are usually accompanied by demands for some kind of punitive military action against the offending nation. Congress would have joined in making these calls as well.

But this isn’t Yugoslavia, gang — this is the vast, 1.3 billion-population country of China –- a nuclear-armed China, at that. So the stakes of such military action are much higher to begin with, which means the stakes of huge American military losses are also much higher.

Bush knew that.

So what of economic sanctions? Fair enough, but don’t think for a moment U.S. economic sanctions against China would not be felt by U.S. consumers — read U.S. voters. As our country becomes mired in recession-like economic inactivity, the cheaper goods imported by U.S. retailers would no longer be available to U.S. consumers.

I’ve personally engaged in my own Chinese product boycott already, but tens of millions of Americans are not as fiscally able as me to do that. They would be hurt; they vote. Also, U.S. retailers, forced to import or stock more expensive goods, would pass those costs onto us, the consumer — already, at a time when we’re being porked economically.

Bush knows this, too. He would do it, I believe, but he knows that the economic effects would boomerang on several sectors of American society — and don’t think they wouldn’t be complaining about it, either — something else the president knows.

What about a more confrontational foreign policy with China? We should be firm and resolute in our policies and national security interests, yes, but increasing confrontationalism is akin to picking a fight — perhaps a fight we aren’t prepared to wage militarily and perhaps a fight that would not be well-received among the population, especially when the casualties started rolling in.

Bush knows this.

Besides, don’t think for a moment that once the U.S. becomes embroiled in a major fight, other historic enemies won’t “make their own moves” to fulfill designs of conquest and aggression against some of our allies — because we won’t be able to protect them any longer. Boom — World War III.

Bush knows this, too. So does Powell. So do Vice President Cheney and Secretary Rumsfeld.

Do I agree that because of the ramifications, if this standoff had yet to be settled, that none of these ideas should be implemented? No, not really. But I do disagree that these ideas should have been considered and implemented first — which is basically what the “take-a-harder-stance” crowd was stumping for.

We don’t want our leaders thinking with their emotions instead of thinking with their minds, looking at the big picture, understanding the ramifications of said action and considering all options before jumping in with both feet.

The Bush team knows how not to do this. That’s why it made careful, reasoned, methodical and inherently sane choices in dealing with its first foreign policy challenge. I don’t call it a “crisis” because, in my view, the White House prevented it from becoming a genuine crisis.

And remember, the Bush administration has already thumped Beijing’s head for working to endanger U.S. national security, when Bush ordered the bombing of an Iraqi fiber optics radar network center outside Baghdad in February. Iraq was building that network with China’s help — so what makes us think Bush won’t do so again if necessary?

The White House applied appropriate pressure in Iraq, and it did so again with China. I think the Chinese have gotten the message.

Their pride may not permit them to learn anything from this message, but that’s their tough luck. Eventually, if they keep pushing, I’m confident the Bush administration will — shall we say — drive the point home if they continue to provoke us.

Americans are a pretty complacent and forgiving lot until you pull a “Pearl Harbor” on us. If China does this, I don’t think there’s a single pundit, expert or citizen in this country that will prevent this White House from transforming the Asian Tiger into a lap-bound pussycat.

But this incident wasn’t Pearl Harbor — or Dutch Harbor, or even a harbor of ill-will. It was a little shove to see if Beijing could get away with it, and by all accounts, it didn’t.

Consequently, it didn’t require a Pearl Harbor response, either.

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