EVENTS in this post-Gulf-war Spring of 1991 may be providing George Bush with a second chance to show that he is not merely a brilliant national security tactician but also a bold foreign policy strategist. An opportunity, in short, to prove that he has mastered ``the vision thing.'' Bush's leadership in the Gulf war was a tactical tour de force. He assembled and managed a formidable international coalition, skillfully garnered political support for his actions in the United States, and mustered the moral and political courage to use military force in the service of the national interest.
But claims that he had found in action the strategic vision which his words had failed to summon are wrong. The Gulf war was not a crisis of the new world order but of the old. And the Persian Gulf is not the main arena of world politics or the real foreign challenge for Bush's presidency. From a strategic point of view the pivotal event of the Bush years was not the coming of hot war in the Gulf but the ending of the cold war with the Soviet Union. So far, the administration has been cautious to a faul t in deploying American power to help shape this historic transition.
Bush missed his first opportunity to promote rapid and successful change in the Soviet Union in 1989. Having campaigned as more suspicious and hardline toward the Soviets than even the Reagan administration, the president spent the spring and summer of that year watching and waiting while Mikhail Gorbachev forged ahead with one pathbreaking change after another. When the administration's critics asked why it was so reticent to back Moscow's new leadership, Bush's secretary of defense and deputy national security adviser warned about Soviet power and intentions.
It was not until the Berlin Wall came down that the administration appeared to listen to experts who had been saying that Gorbachev was something really different. But even after the embrace of the Malta Summit, the administration still hesitated, waiting until late 1990 to provide meaningful economic aid.
By then it was too late. With the Soviet economy and internal empire disintegrating and his own popularity fading, Gorbachev had turned to the right, and was at least condoning if not instigating violent repression in the Baltics. Whether these developments could have been prevented by American political and financial support is debatable, but one thing is clear: we did not try.
THIS summer, however, there seems to be a second chance. For the moment, the Soviet central government appears to have set aside repressive tools in favor of new political instruments for dealing with the republics; new economic reform plans are being drafted; Gorbachev will probably attend the upcoming G-7 summit of Western economic powers; the Supreme Soviet has passed the long-awaited emigration bill; and the Soviets are even showing some flexibility in recently stalled arms reduction negotiations.
Will the Bush administration seize this second strategic opportunity to support Mr. Gorbachev? There are always multiple reasons to be cautious. Some will fear giving the Russians something for nothing. Others, forgetting the historical contributions of Mikhail Gorbachev to world peace and his formidable political skills, will hope that another leader will emerge. Still others will bemoan that the US does not have the wherewithal in this year of a $400 billion deficit to do anything meaningful.
But the US does have the ability, and the responsibility, to lead. Waiting for a better leader than Gorbachev to come along is imprudent. Instead of continuing to temporize on the USSR's two-month-old request for another $1.5 billion in agricultural credits, the administration should be willing to do whatever is necessary (including, dare it be said, raising taxes) to capitalize on this second chance to support Soviet reform. It should be boldly leading a comprehensive Western effort to support market r eforms in the Soviet economy.
The Marshall Plan used the leverage of $125 billion to help restore economic health to a war-ravaged Western Europe. Restoring a Communist-ravaged Eastern Europe (including the USSR) is an equal challenge with equal payoffs. How Bush deals with it will, far more than the Gulf war, determine the strategic success of his administration.