Spy-Plane Incident Gives Boost to Powell ; Deft Handling May Shift Balance of Power on Bush Foreign-Policy Team toward Doves

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The resolution of the China spy-plane crisis has produced at least one apparent winner in Washington: Secretary of State Colin Powell.

In the first months of the Bush presidency, the relatively moderate Powell often seemed at odds with the rest of the administration's foreign-policy team. Whether it was policy towards Iraq, North Korea, or Europe, Powell's initial statements were often contradicted later by harder-line words from equally high- ranking hawks like Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

In the administration's first big test overseas, however, it seems that restraint and nuance carried the day, after an initial burst of aggressive rhetoric. As a result, the country's chief diplomat, Mr. Powell, has increased his standing as a member of the president's national security team, observers say.

"This has definitely strengthened Secretary Powell's personal hand in formulating American foreign policy," says David Shambaugh, a China specialist at George Washington University here. "Prior to this, there were evident cleavages between centrists and hawks and between State and Defense, but this has been managed effectively by Powell."

Of course, one case does not a trend make. But this was a high- profile one, with the potential for a nasty, drawn-out ending, involving a nation of tremendous strategic and economic significance for the United States. It was, say analysts, an important staging ground for Powell, whose roadmap out of the crisis was described by the US ambassador in Beijing as "a key turning point" in the 11-day standoff.

"In my mind, Powell has a feather in his cap, because he managed this well," says Kenneth Lieberthal, the chief Asia adviser to former President Clinton. "But Rumsfeld also has a feather in his cap, because he had the discipline to keep out of it."

Indeed, the Defense secretary was barely to be seen or heard during the run of these negotiations, while it was Powell who first uttered the word "regret," which then progressed to "sorry," and then "very sorry" - all words the president approved.

Mr. Rumsfeld's lower profile during the standoff was a deliberate choice. At a time when the White House was trying to prevent what they called an "accident" from snowballing into a full-blown crisis, President Bush and his aides concluded that the Defense secretary's was not the appropriate voice to project.

Bush's first test

Generally, the administration is receiving high marks from both Republicans and Democrats for its disciplined and nuanced handling of the detainee issue. …