IN the run-up to the Republican convention, President Bush's beleaguered campaign managers took solace in at least one conviction: In the realm of foreign policy, their man was invincible. Sporting victories in the cold war and the Gulf war, they reasoned, Mr. Bush could hardly be challenged by an inexperienced Arkansas governor.
But as the president begins his last and most daunting campaign, even that confident assumption is now in doubt. Bush's response to recent events in Yugoslavia and Iraq has created an impression of drift and timidity that could prove an equalizer in the campaign, nullifying the advantage of his long diplomatic experience. More threatening to Bush, say some analysts, is a growing suspicion that the diplomatic skills he honed during the cold war may be inappropriate to the new world order he has yet to def ine. `Wrong man' for future?
"Bush was the right man for his time but the wrong man to build the future," says Robert Hunter of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
"He was a leader who was lucky enough to be present at the end of the cold war and he managed the endgame of the cold war well. He was also a reasonably good commander-in-chief during the Gulf war," adds Hans Binnendijk, director the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University. "But since last summer he's lost his compass."
Dr. Binnendijk says the "high-water mark" was reached when Bush played a crucial role in bringing about the unification of Germany. In an era of greater complexity, he says, Bush has faltered.
After skillfully shaping the sudden changes that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, Bush was curiously slow to frame measures to encourage democracy and free-market reforms in Russia and the other new republics.
After defining the "trialogue" of the US, Europe, and Japan as the architectural centerpiece of the post-cold-war era, Bush has largely neglected Japan, even as relations with Germany and France have been strained by differing visions of America's role in European security.
The most visible symbol of Bush's troubles is Saddam Hussein, who still reigns despite a punishing defeat during the Gulf war. As the glow of victory fades, analysts describe the war as a bright moment squeezed between major miscalculations - encouraging Saddam with money and weapons before the war, then failing to press harder for compliance with UN cease-fire resolutions afterward.
The other symbol of Bush's problems is Yugoslavia, where his hesitant response to Serbian atrocities has given the suddenly more hawkish Clinton campaign an unexpected opening.
At the height of his popularity just after the Gulf war, nearly 80 percent of Americans polled by the Gallup Organization approved of the way Bush was handling foreign policy, with only 11 percent disapproving. By last month the president's approval rating on foreign affairs was down to 52 percent, with 42 percent disapproving.
"People respond in context and the context is no longer the Persian Gulf victory," says Larry Hugick, managing editor of the Gallup Organization.
"As memories of the Gulf war begin to fade, attention has shifted to other things, like policy toward Japan or the former Soviet bloc, were people are not as happy with the way things are going," Mr. Hugick says.
Diplomatic analysts advance several explanations for Bush's slide from grace in the once-secure domain of foreign policy.
Bush's sternest critics say he was never as good at foreign policy as most Americans believed. Bush said to be reactive
His reputation was made by the Gulf war, they say, but the war was merely an exception to the rule that in his handling of foreign policy Bush has tended to be reactive and not forward-looking.
"He usually doesn't react until events hit him over the head," comments one Washington analyst, noting the administration's slowness to embrace independence movements in the Baltics, to grasp the imminent demise of the Soviet Union, and to understand what Saddam was up to until he invaded Kuwait.
Bush's defenders say the reasons for his declining ratings in foreign policy have much more to do with the complexity of the international system itself in the wake of the cold war. To illustrate, they point to Yugoslavia, a problem that has troubled all Western leaders who are faced with the cruel choice of ending Serbian atrocities and seeing their own soldiers caught in the lethal crossfire of Bosnia's civil war.
Confidence in Bush's management of foreign policy has also flagged because of his failure to define a clear vision of the post-cold-war era and America's role in it.
Woodrow Wilson articulated such a vision after World War I, though it withered in an era of postwar isolationism. Harry Truman implemented another, symbolized by the Marshall Plan, after the World War II. But two years after the end of the cold war, Bush's new world order stands undefined.
Bush's defenders insist that Wilson and Truman had an easier task, since the international system was far simpler then than now.
Bush's critics say his fondness for the status quo and his penchant for personal diplomacy have substituted for the kind of rigorous strategic thinking that, to choose one example, characterized the diplomacy of the Nixon-Kissinger era.
The failure has handed another issue to the Clinton campaign, which was first to make the link between reviving the economy at home and playing the role of a major power abroad its main theme.
"Bush does not see the connection between foreign and domestic policy, and it's one of the generational changes now taking place," says Bert Rockman, a professor of political science at the University of Pittsburgh. "That's the world we'll be looking at a lot in the next 20 years."
Bush has also been hindered by a management style that relies on a small number of close advisors. That style worked well when the agenda was dominated by a single issue like the Gulf war, but it is a handicap in an era that lacks focus even as it imposes multiple demands on policymakers.
"It's not a good way of doing business when we have to do many things at one time, when we have to build a future that is a complicated as the one we face," says Dr. Hunter. Bush lacked resources
Hunter notes another factor that has hobbled Bush: the absence of economic tools needed to manage foreign policy in the post-cold-war era.
With the federal debt quadrupled under 12 years of Republican rule, the US no longer has the money for big foreign-aid budgets, or to mobilize a coalition to fight in the Gulf, without having to practice tin-cup diplomacy with nations like Japan and Germany.
Bush is also tasting the bitter fruits of a trend that has persisted through several cold-war presidencies, in which massive amounts of federal money were plowed into defense at the expense of other investments - education, for example - that might have positioned the US to compete better economically in the post-cold-war era.