THE Bush administration is going on the foreign policy offensive. President Bush will lay out his vision of key East-West and West-West issues in a series of speeches over the next month, senior administration officials say.
``We hope this will be perceived as `we're back in business,''' one senior administration official says.
The White House has been stung by criticism that the administration has no strategic vision and is dithering while Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev steals the show. Top officials are calculating that such public impatience will prove temporary once the President lays out his views and superpower talks shift into gear.
``The President said the policy reviews would be done in 90 days and here we are,'' the senior official says. Those ``demanding the dramatic may not be satisfied,'' but Mr. Bush will lay out a ``clear-headed view of what we are facing'' and offer some concrete ideas on how to move ahead, he says.
While the administration will soon start moving on arms control where Gorbachev is pressing most, it will also strike out in areas where the Soviet leader is on the defensive, such as Eastern Europe, Bush aides say.
The President is not tempted to try to match Gorbachev offer by offer, but he will proceed prudently in what could prove to be the most important shift in superpower relations since 1945, officials say.
Last Friday, Bush spelled out his basic approach to the Soviet Union. Stressing the ``precious opportunity'' to move beyond containment, the President established criteria by which the West can encourage the Soviet Union to evolve toward more openness and become fully integrated into the community of nations.
Bush offered to seek a waiver on trade restrictions with the Soviet Union, if it liberalizes emigration laws as promised. He also challenged Moscow to accept an ``open skies'' over its territory - a revival of an Eisenhower-era proposal for mutual surveillance flights.
In two commencement speeches next week, Bush will focus on challenges facing the US-European relations and discuss strategic issues, officials say.
The President then goes on to the NATO summit that begins May 19 in Brussels. There, officials say he will put forward a broader view of NATO's role in Europe for the next decade no matter the state of the still simmering dispute with West Germany over opening negotiations on short-range nuclear forces in Europe. Bush will give another major East-West speech in Germany after the summit, as well as visit Italy and Britain. After a short respite, Bush returns to Europe for the Western Economic Summit, then takes the challenge to Gorbachev's backyard with visits to Poland and Hungary.
It will not be easy to overcome the criticism that has built up while the administration reviewed basic policies, or the impression that Gorbachev has had the initiative in Europe. Top US officials concede the administration lost several weeks early on that are costly now. Working level US diplomats are more blunt in describing the lost opportunities and the need to move quickly to sketch out the administration's views of Europe during the next decade.
Again last week, the Soviet leader showed his ``magician's'' skills, as one State Department analyst put it. He kept NATO divisions simmering and stole the thunder from Secretary of State James Baker III during his visit to Moscow. He did it with a clever, but largely symbolic, offer to withdraw 500 nuclear warheads from Europe. (This is only about 5 percent of the estimated 10,000 Soviet nuclear charges in Europe compared to about 4,000 US warheads there.)
Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze followed this carrot up with a stick with his warning in West Germany that, if NATO modernizes its short-range missiles, Moscow will either do the same or refuse to dismantle some of its missiles included in the INF treaty.
The domestic response to President Bush's Soviet speech was also mixed, reflecting the strong sentiment in some quarters for bolder initiatives. Sen. Joseph Biden (D) of Delaware, chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Europe, for example, criticized it as far short of what is needed to match Gorbachev or heal the current rift in NATO over short-range nuclear forces.
Arthur Hartman, a former US Ambassador to the Soviet Union and France, says the speech was a fine beginning. But evidence that the Bush team has its ducks in order will only begin to be seen in positions that emerge in the weeks ahead, especially on strategic arms and space talks, he says.
Ambassador Hartman contends that it is not important to ``answer every one of Gorbachev's shots'' as long as basic US positions are sound. He praises the Bush team as the only recent administration to seek consensus with Congress on US strategic deterrence before entering negotiations. ``They're trying to figure out what our force structures would be with a 50 percent cut in strategic weapons. In the last administration, you'd have 50 different views on this.''
The Bush team also realizes that ``some people will still want the moon,'' as one top official puts it. But officials argue that public opinion here will support his prudent strategy.
Bush advisers are also counting on the President to show his strong cards in the weeks ahead. Mr. Bush ``can be very low key and focus only on the day to day,'' one adviser says. ``But when the crunch comes, he changes and really performs.''
In a sense, this country is going through ``Reagan withdrawal'' as it adapts to the absence of a highly managed public image delivered by an excellent speechmaker, says a US foreign affairs official. President Bush also has to handle the damage here and in Europe of overbloated Reagan-era images of progress in the nuclear and space weapons areas, they say.
On the short-range missile controversy with West Germany, the differences are surmountable, US officials say. President Bush confers later in the week with French President Francois Mitterrand. US officials expect a solution to emerge before the NATO summit at months end, though they are still not using the ``N-word'' or the ``C-word'' (negotiation or compromise). The administration remains opposed to opening negotiations with the Soviets on short-range nuclear forces, while West Germany favors them and opposes a quick decision to modernize the current NATO arsenal.
``I don't know how this will come out,'' says the senior administration official. ``But it is a distraction'' from the real alliance challenge of ending the division of Europe and testing Soviet sincerity. The Soviets are reveling in current NATO divisions and fomenting them, as demonstrated during Baker's visit last week.
Gorbachev's ``Europe policy is [the] classic old Soviet policy'' of dividing the US from its allies and pushing for elimination of nuclear arms in Europe, the senior official argues. ``He uses arms control in a very tendentious way'' to keep us on the defensive.
``Ironically, Gorbachev has controlled the pace and timing of arms control by his concessions, not by his initiatives,'' one top specialist says. ``My theory is that Gorbachev is the one with the problems. But he's not being hounded with `where's the beef?'''
Part of the US response to Gorbachev's jabs on arms control is to take the initiative in other areas where he is weaker, such as in Eastern Europe, officials say.
``Here is where Gorbachev is on the defensive,'' and, ``where the division of Europe is rooted,'' a senior official who has long worked on that region says, Indeed, he says ``the real source of tension [there] is not the arms'' already in place but ``the artificial division of Europe by Soviet power.'' This is where the US and its allies can engage economically to encourage changes already under way, he says.