Can George Do It?

Quickly now, who are Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Aslan Maskhadov, and Pervaiz Musharraf?

Don't feel badly if you didn't get them right. Presidential hopeful George W. Bush couldn't name them as the leaders of their respective countries (India, Chechnya, and Pakistan) when a Boston reporter ambushed him recently. Half the CEOs and newspaper editors in the United States would flunk the test. Most college students would look at you like mute and startled deer if you hit them with the question.

Ronald Reagan couldn't remember some of his Cabinet members' names on occasion.

A couple of ambassadors-designate couldn't remember the names of the leaders of the countries they were being assigned to when they came up for their Senate hearings.

Does this mean Mr. Reagan was an incompetent president without vision in foreign affairs? Not at all. Actually, he played a key role in ending the cold war. Does it mean the ambassadors-to-be were hopeless duds? Not necessarily.

What it does mean is that men and women in high office, or who aspire to it, sometimes don't master their briefing books.

A president of the United States gets a daily briefing, both verbal and written, from his national security staff and the Central Intelligence Agency on the latest developments, possibilities, and threats around the world. The secretary of State gets a similar briefing.

Before a president or secretary of State meets a foreign leader, or takes a trip to a foreign country, he gets a briefing book - or series of briefing books - of numbing thickness and weight worked up by a small army of staffers.

There is mountainous material that outlines the background of the foreign leader, the political and economic situation in his country, the issues that lie between his nation and the US. There are psychographic workups, and maybe psychiatric evaluations, and usually CIA profiles. There is data so voluminous that it would boggle the mind of a triple PhD. There are sections on protocol, down to diagrams of who stands where. (Once, after a rocky period between the US and the then Soviet Union, there was a position paper on whether Secretary of State George P. Shultz should, or should not, shake hands when greeting Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko. The resolution: Shultz would not come out to meet Gromyko on the steps, but would shake hands inside, out of camera range).

Thus, an American president is never short of a mass of information about whom he's meeting, and who runs which country. Usually, these briefings are made available in an election year to leading contenders for the presidency. But if Mr. Bush isn't getting them yet, he has plenty of skilled foreign affairs advisers to tutor him.

Probably he should be doing more homework with his foreign policy position papers and these advisers. But the fact that he did not know the tongue-twisting names of a few foreign leaders he hasn't yet met doesn't mean he would be a dolt in the White House.

As he told Time magazine: "I've never held myself out to be any great genius, but I'm plenty smart. And I've got good common sense and good instincts. And that's what people want in their leader."

If Bush becomes president, he will do so at a critical moment. Democrats have rightly been upbraiding Republicans in Congress for sinking the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and for scandalous foot-dragging on payment of the American debt to the United Nations. This sounds ill coming from a Democratic administration that has alternately ignored or fumbled foreign policy through much of its tenure.

What America needs is a president who can overleap the foreign policy neglect of the Democrats and the neo-isolationism of right-wing Republicans, and inspire the bilateral support that has generally made American foreign policy more effective. Maybe George can do it even if he has flubbed on a few names.

* John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is editor of the Deseret News, in Salt Lake City.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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