BLESSED with good timing, tactical skills, and a thick Rolodex, George Bush has made his deepest mark as president in the realm of foreign policy.
The good timing part was the collapse of the Soviet Union which, almost overnight, removed the security threat that has preoccupied every American president since Harry Truman.
As for the tactical skills and Rolodex, they have been honed and fattened, respectively, through long years of diplomatic service that have won for George Bush the friendship and respect of leaders around the world.
"From the perspective of practitioners of the international arts, Bush is highly regarded," says American Enterprise Institute scholar Mark Falcoff.
Bush has been tested frequently during his eventful term as chief executive and at least until recently, most observers agree, he has demonstrated considerable mastery of the diplomatic arts.
Bush's chief accomplishment was his poised response to the period of sweeping and unpredictable change ushered in by the collapse of the Soviet Union. Although slow at first to recognize how fast the Soviet empire was unraveling, he compensated by setting a constructive tone that made it possible for Russia and the other new republics to take their places in the community of nations quickly and gracefully.
"Bush is seen as a man who in a very dignified way closed down the cold war and allowed our adversaries to hang up their weapons without humiliating them," says Mr. Falcoff.
Bush made another significant contribution to the post-cold-war order by helping convince the European allies of the inevitability and desirability of German unification.
Almost alone among Western leaders, Bush was confident that a united Germany would not again be militant and expansionist. He headed off a divisive debate within NATO and the European Community and cemented good relations with Germany.
The showcase of Bush's diplomatic skills has been the Middle East. After Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, Bush traded on his wide acquaintance with foreign leaders to form the coalition that led the Gulf war. The result was the reversal of aggression, the protection of Saudi Arabia's territorial integrity, and the security of Western oil supplies.
"The president's strengths are essentially tactical," says one Washington analyst. "Once he sees a problem he pulls out his Rolodex and tackles it based on his long experience with foreign leaders."
After the war Bush and Secretary of State James Baker III seized the opportunity to address the other Middle East conflict: the 40-year Arab-Israeli dispute.
With Bush's authority behind him, Mr. Baker brought his energy and persuasiveness to the task of convincing Israel and its Arab neighbors to sit down at the bargaining table. At considerable political risk, he leaned hard on Israel's recalcitrant prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir, to go along. With the recent election of a more moderate Israeli government, the peace process may be on the verge of a significant breakthrough.
Bush's management of foreign policy has hardly been flawless, say analysts. He has not been as surefooted outside the familiar context of the cold war. But "Bush has brought to the job the patience of a classic conservative," says the analyst.