Bush knows the ropes - but can he untie the knots?

GEORGE BUSH sat in the White House for eight years and learned many of the ropes. Nevertheless, he will be hard pressed to put together an administration and get it working before Inauguration Day. The most daunting challenge comes in international affairs. In domestic policy, the nation and Congress quiet down at the start of a new administration, largely letting the president set the agenda and the pace - at least for the first few months.

Not so the outside world. With the loss of United States predominance in power and influence, the timetable of global activity no longer gears itself to political events in Washington. The Soviet Union's Mikhail Gorbachev, for one, is doing his best to outclass the new US president even before Inauguration Day. And the Western allies are waiting to see whether President Bush is equal to the charge of economic leadership in the United States and the West.

This transition period will be critical for the course of the Bush administration. As a succession of presidents have learned, failure to develop effective management tools or to attend closely to key personnel decisions leads to failure. In theory, Bush has an advantage. He saw firsthand what happens to a president neglectful of these seemingly mundane chores. He has had the chance to learn what works and what doesn't in organizing and carrying out foreign policy. And he has been able to judge which current officials could usefully be kept on and which should be dismissed.

Sorting out the relationship between his national security adviser - Brent Scowcroft - and his secretary of state - James Baker III - will be the most important personnel matter for the President-elect to attend to. As America's role in the outside world has become more complicated, the making of national security policy - the totality of US actions abroad - has inevitably gravitated to the White House. Only there can the bureaucratic compromises be made, the leadership exercised, that can add up to a coherent strategy for the nation.

The security adviser is thus perforce at the center of the web of coordinating policy. But unless he puts earning the trust of other members of the National Security Council ahead of personal aggrandizement, there is certain to be trouble. Only the president can limit that trouble, by keeping the adviser out of the media and under control, while confirming the secretary of state as chief diplomat and spokesman.

President Bush faces an added task to a greater degree than any of his predecessors: to integrate international economic policy with other aspects of national security policy - and all international issues with domestic matters facing the nation. Economic interdependence has become a bureaucratic imperative, as useful distinctions between foreign and domestic issues have largely been eroded. How the president copes with this new demand must depend on his style of governing. But the best alternative is to create a new White House position of assistant to the president for international economic affairs, provide a small staff, and make this coordinator's role equal to that of the national security and domestic policy advisers.

This new requirement also adds intensity to a common prescription for any new president: to start immediately building bridges to Congress. During the Bush administration, both Houses will be deeply engaged in the conduct of foreign policy, and not just because of the classic contention over the distribution of powers for making war and peace. The success of US foreign policy will increasingly turn on economics, in two respects - reasserting US leadership in the global economy and creating the tools for US action abroad. That is Congress's business as much as the president's, and he cannot govern alone.

Economics must also be at the heart of President Bush's foreign policy priorities - those goals he will pursue most vigorously in the early months of his administration, while playing down the rest. Two related actions must be uppermost: demonstrating, at home and abroad, that he is seizing control of the US budget and reducing the deficits, and demonstrating the primacy of economic relationships with America's key allies.

These twin steps are critical to US leadership, key to the judgment that America's industrial-state allies will make of the early days of the Bush presidency, and the necessary underpinning for all other aspects of US foreign policy. Indeed, success in the most critical areas of traditional foreign policy - redefining security relations with the West European and East Asian allies and matching Gorbachev's inventive diplomacy - must begin with Bush's mastering of US domestic economic problems.

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