PRESIDENT BUSH has emerged from the US invasion of Panama with a foreign-policy image that, at least for now, has confounded conventional wisdom. An American University foreign-relations professor, for example, issued a press release saying Mr. Bush would never use force to depose Panamanian despot Manuel Noriega: The president's concept of national power was too ``mature'' for such macho solutions.
A short time later, Mr. Bush sent in the Army.
In a sense this hapless expert was simply echoing conventional wisdom. Whether they admit it or not, many in Washington were taken aback when United States troops muscled into Panama after the tiny, indicted head of state.
Until then, George Bush's approach to foreign policy had been roundly criticized as timid, or at least reactive. Yet here he was launching a massive use of force that was nothing if not risky.
``Like most things, once it happens you can see the events leading up to it. But, yes, I was surprised,'' says John Steinbruner, director of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution.
Overnight Bush's image changed. It is unlikely the invasion of Panama marks the advent of newly aggressive Bush actions on foreign relations. But in terms of political perception in the US the invasion has been a watershed for the Bush administration.
In a larger sense, the success or failure of the move must wait on what happens in Panama. The government of President Guillermo Endara will try to build democracy into a nation with a weak tradition of civilian control.
``We don't yet know how it will end,'' says John Roberts, dean of the college of law at De Paul University and a former Senate Panama expert.
The theme of Bush timidity on foreign policy had been one sounded by many Democrats in 1989. It referred largely to what was seen as a slow reaction on the part of the US to events in Eastern Europe, and was articulated most forcefully by Senate majority leader George Mitchell (D) of Maine in a series of speeches on the Senate floor.
Asked whether the Panama invasion meant Senator Mitchell could no longer call him timid, Bush on Friday said ``knowing George, he'll find a reason, he'll find a way. And that's his job. I mean, look, we're going into an election year.''
Senator Mitchell issued a statement of support for the Panama action. ``I hope that American forces can return home as promptly as possible,'' he said last week. Most other senior Democrats voiced similar sentiments, with the exception of Jesse Jackson, who strongly criticized the Bush use of force.
The closest thing to a new Democratic theme of criticism about Bush foreign policy came from Sen. Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia, the influential head of the Senate Armed Services Committee who visited Panama shortly before Noriega surrendered. Senator Nunn was at pains to separate the action of the invasion - which he supported as justified - from the policies he said had made force necessary, such as the Central Intelligence Agency's long reliance on Noriega for Latin American intelligence.
``We were very clumsy in dealing with the situation there,'' said Senator Nunn on his return.
Even if more Democrats wanted to bash Bush over Panama, the force of public opinion might be staying their mouths. The risks were large. Casualties could have been higher, Noriega could have remained at large. But the invasion went off about as well as Bush could have hoped, and the move is clearly a hit with US voters - one Gallup poll found 80 percent of Americans approved.
A number of foreign policy experts dismiss the notion that the Panama invasion might mark a new, pro-active phase of Bush foreign policy. Many things about Panama made it unique, they say.
To begin with, Panama is a creation of the United States, a nation carved off of Colombia so the US could build a canal. It is a place that has remained largely pro-American, as photos of the ecstatic reception given American GIs have made clear. The invasion was not technically an invasion anyway - 12,000 US troops were already there.
On top of this was laid a national leader so obviously corrupt he seemed trite, and so unsavory that international reaction to his removal was bound to be muted.
Given all this the invasion is best seen as the result of exceptional circumstances. ``It set no precedent, I hope, because it is a violation of all precedents one would like to establish for international behavior,'' says John Steinbruner of Brookings.
The Panama invasion, while not timid, could be seen as reactive.
It was a solution, albeit a bold one, to the short term problem of Noriega's growing, erratic aggression. There was nothing in it of ``the vision thing'' - a phrase Bush must surely rue.
Ironically, the one recent Bush foreign policy move which smacks of vision was highly unpopular. One can argue whether it was right for Bush to send a high-level visitor to China, but it was defended by White House officials as something necessary for long-term US interests.