During last year's presidential campaign, we were assured that George W. Bush's foreign policy team would be far superior in skill and experience to the much derided Clintonites. When Bush came to power, the "adults" would be in charge. Four months into the Bush presidency, the "adults" may want to consider drafting a letter of apology to Madeleine Albright, Sandy Berger, and William Cohen.

Last week's flip-flop on the question of military-to-military exchanges with China was an especially striking example of the new team's fumbling, and also of its willingness to hang loyal subordinates out to dry. On Monday, secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld's adviser and righthand man Chris Williams sent a memorandum to the Joint Chiefs of Staff ordering the suspension of all contacts between the U.S. and Chinese militaries. The decision was hardly a bolt from the blue. Rumsfeld's unhappiness with the military exchange program -- in which we share a great deal of information with them while they share nothing with us -- was well-known. Earlier this year Rumsfeld had ordered a review to determine whether the program should be suspended, and after the appalling behavior of the Chinese military during the EP-3 hostage crisis, he decided to take the final step as a clear and appropriate expression of American displeasure.

But when word of the decision became public on Wednesday, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice went ballistic. Rumsfeld's entirely unsurprising decision, we are told, caught her entirely by surprise. The White House immediately repudiated Rumsfeld, insisting that contacts with the Chinese would continue, though on a case-by-case basis.

It was bad enough that the White House thus inflicted upon Rumsfeld a second public humiliation in less than three months. (The first was when the White House announced in early February that there would be no immediate effort to increase defense spending, a decision that contradicted what Rumsfeld had just told Congress.) Even more inexcusable was the White House's decision, with Rumsfeld's evident approval, to make Chris Williams the fall guy. Administration officials put out word that Williams had blown it. He had "misinterpreted" and "misunderstood" Rumsfeld's order.

This is ludicrous. There is not the smallest chance that Chris Williams could have so badly misunderstood his boss. Everyone who has ever worked with Williams knows that he is careful, disciplined, and loyal. What's more, Williams has been working the China issue for more than a decade, most recently as Trent Lott's foreign policy adviser and before that as deputy staff director on the Senate Intelligence Committee. As much as any policymaker in Washington, Williams would understand the vast difference between an order to suspend contacts with the Chinese military and an order to review contacts "on a case-by-case basis," which administration spokesmen now claim was Rumsfeld's intention.

The appalling implication that Williams is an idiot flies in the face of other known facts. Early last week, Pentagon officials were talking to reporters about the suspension order, not only verifying its existence but also providing the rationale behind it. On Tuesday, the new assistant secretary of state for East Asia, James Kelly, testified to Congress, "We're not going to conduct business as usual after our servicemen and women were detained for 11 days in China." On Wednesday, senator John Warner told reporters he had discussed the suspension with Rumsfeld personally and had heartily endorsed the defense secretary's decision. After that statement, the White House pounced on Warner, who then obediently explained that he had misspoken. "If there is an error," Warner told reporters on Thursday, "it is mine, and I accept it." Now that's loyalty -- accepting blame for a mistake one did not in fact make.

We wonder if Donald Rumsfeld or anyone else in the Bush administration will accept responsibility for the mistake they did make. One brave and "well-placed" Defense Department official "speaking on condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the issue" did confirm to the Los Angeles Times on Friday that "Rumsfeld had intended to break off all contacts between the two militaries." Still, as this magazine goes to press, Rumsfeld remains silent while his loyal aide is left twisting slowly in the wind.

Last week's embarrassment is, of course, but the latest in a series of administration screw-ups with regard to China. The Taiwan arms sale announced two weeks ago with so much ballyhoo now appears to have been either a fraud or a singular case of bureaucratic ineptitude. The centerpiece of that deal was the decision by the Bush administration to sell Taiwan eight diesel-powered submarines. The subs, it was correctly argued, were essential to provide the Taiwanese navy the minimum capability to begin addressing the prodigious buildup of Chinese naval forces in the Taiwan Strait. Along with P-3 anti-sub surveillance planes, also approved by the administration, the submarines would give Taiwan a fighting chance against a Chinese naval blockade or amphibious attack. The Bush administration, which had refused to approve the Aegis battle management radar system for sale to Taiwan for fear of offending Beijing, trumpeted the submarine sale as proof positive that it was not going soft on China.

It turns out there is only one problem: The Taiwanese will most likely never get the submarines. And what's worse, some Bush officials may have suspected as much when they approved the deal. Since the U.S. Navy doesn't have diesel-powered submarines and doesn't want to build any, Bush officials had vaguely hoped to get the Netherlands or Germany or some other foreign country to build them. But they never bothered to consult with the Dutch or the Germans, or anyone else for that matter, before announcing the sale. Within days, the angry Dutch and German governments declared categorically that they would not build the subs for Taiwan. And no other government has volunteered its services.

Bush officials now admit, privately, that they are up a creek. Without the submarines, the P-3s are next to useless. And if you subtract the subs and the P-3s from the sale, all that's left that really matters are the four Kidd-class destroyers which the Taiwanese didn't even request and which by themselves are inadequate to meet the growing Chinese threat. It is unclear whether this monumental lapse was due to administration cynicism or high-level carelessness. Or maybe the submarine fiasco was Chris Williams's fault, too.

Finally, there is the matter of President Bush's promise two weeks ago to employ U.S. forces to defend Taiwan against a Chinese attack. This was probably the most important statement made by a president of the United States with regard to Taiwan and China in the last two decades. Never mind that Bush made it in an interview with a TV journalist rather than in a speech. Bush's declaration was serious and entirely appropriate given recent Chinese behavior. It signaled a long-overdue shift away from the absurd and dangerous American policy of "strategic ambiguity," a relic of the Cold War that no longer makes strategic sense and is now more likely to invite a war with China than prevent one.

No sooner had Bush uttered his historic words, however, than senior foreign policy officials in the White House and the State Department began backing away from them. Off the record, they told reporters that the president had erred. Publicly, they insisted that the president meant what he said. But they also insisted there had been no change in U.S. policy. This was preposterous. It was also insulting to the president. We understand that Karen Hughes, Bush's longtime protector, was furious at the foreign policy team for backing away from their president. And she was right to be furious. Bush's foreign policy advisers managed with one deft blow to make him look both ill-informed and, worse still, irrelevant to the actual making of American foreign policy.

Only one member of the Bush administration had the gumption, the strategic clarity, and, dare we say it, the adult understanding to back up his president at this critical moment. On the Sunday after Bush's comments, on Fox News Sunday, Vice President Cheney not only supported Bush's statements but provided the logic and reasoning behind them. Whatever the virtues of strategic ambiguity in the past, Cheney argued, China's "increasingly aggressive posture" toward Taiwan now required the United States to declare unambiguously that it was committed to Taiwan's defense. "We don't want to see a misjudgment on the part of the Chinese." Far from insisting that Bush's declaration had not changed American policy, Cheney rightly called it "an important step." Unfortunately, Cheney was alone. Rice, Secretary of State Powell, and Rumsfeld offered no similar help.

So the adults are in charge, and yet our policy on the most important strategic question of the coming decades --how to deal with the rising power of China -- grows more incoherent with each passing week. Every apparent move in the direction of a tougher and more realistic policy toward Beijing is followed almost instantaneously by a hedge or a retreat back toward the policies of the Clinton administration. This endless vacillation is no doubt the product of battles between hawks and doves within the administration, battles in which no one ever scores a complete and lasting victory. Such bureaucratic warfare is hardly new, and it is not necessarily bad -- if the president makes up his mind and imposes his views on his subordinates.

We think the president has an instinctive sense that U.S. policy toward China should be a good deal tougher than it has been the last 12 years. Surely it's time for him to shape a coherent policy, bring his advisers into line, and not allow staffers to be hung out to dry. This would be the adult thing to do.