IN his closing statements at the second and third presidential debates, President Bush argued that his proven ability to handle an international crisis is an important reason why Americans should reelect him.
Throughout the 1992 campaign, polls have shown that prospective voters give Mr. Bush a sizable edge over Gov. Bill Clinton when it comes to strong leadership of United States foreign-policy interests and vital national-security issues.
But many reporters commenting on Bush's plea for recognition of his foreign-policy credentials dismissed the president's argument out of hand.
With few exceptions, they confidently reminded viewers and Bush that the cold war is over, that no nation is going to attack the US, and that the president is facing a world scene so dramatically changed that reminders of his foreign-policy leadership are tiresome and irrelevant. To underscore their impatience with the president's insistence on mentioning security issues, pollsters display charts showing a host of domestic issues ranking solidly ahead of anything related to a foreign country.
The day after the Richmond debate, the Wall Street Journal asked four giants of the financial world if a repeat of the the stock-market crash of October 1987 was possible. Peter Lynch, former manager of the Magellan Fund, sketched a possibility for the intermediate future when he replied, "What if the Soviet Union becomes a giant Yugoslavia?"
Said Mr. Lynch: "The Soviet Union is a country loaded with nuclear weapons and is the third-largest oil producer in the world. It's pretty scary. The price of oil would take off. We used to pray for the conversion of Russia; now we pray that it will stay in business. Here's a country that's had years of repression, and their first experience with capitalism is a depression."
The Lynch scenario should be evaluated in light of disturbing current news. Russia is advertising for sale large inventories of military aircraft, submarines, missile systems, as well as technologies to enrich uranium, to potential customers with hard currency.
Meanwhile, ethnic hostilities simmer on Russia's periphery, the pain of economic reform begets popular Russian disillusionment, and elements of the still muscular Russian military sulk about declining prestige. Ultimately, what happens in Russian will greatly affect our security, international economic stability, and the volume of resources available for US domestic programs.
No amount of empathizing with the economic pain of average Americans nor myriad economic plans and theories of deficit reduction will make much of a difference economically if the US fails to thoughtfully manage a new relationship with the republics of the former Soviet Union that promotes democracy.
Bush and his administration could have been much more vigorous and comprehensive in managing the relationship. But Bush has been hammered for the last year and a half by Democrats who taunted him, inaccurately, as being far too interested in world affairs and not interested enough in our domestic economy.
After an April 1992 bipartisan White House meeting and announcement, the administration had to wait six months for Congress to pass the Freedom Support Act, which authorized the critical elements of our modest relationship with the former Soviet Republics.
It's to be hoped that Bush or Mr. Clinton will understand that we are not going to enjoy a strong and uninterrupted recovery of our domestic economy until we have taken hold of these pressing world issues with bold leadership and needed resources. This must be combined with redefinition of our relationship to NATO, with the corresponding obligations of European countries to us in finishing up the GATT treaty, and with the action necessary to bring peace to Yugoslavia.
To bring strong progress to our own economy, we must understand why Europe is in a recession, why Japanese banking and insurance institutions are in crisis, and how scarce worldwide capital may be in the near future.
We must either help strengthen the peace-keeping methods of the United Nations or fashion peace-keeping operations of our own if the world is going to remain safe for trade and travel. And we must have vastly expanded trade if there is to be any realistic hope for sustaining economic growth and increasing the real value of paychecks for all Americans.
This is why Bush should continue to raise unabashedly the question of who is best able to handle the complexities of America's role in the world. That issue did not end with the cold war. In fact, world leadership has taken on much greater relevance and complexity for each of us who is striving to prod the American economy to more rapid growth.