FLEEING a domestic economy that remains stubbornly mired in recession, Republican campaign strategists have decided to trump the Democrats with what they and many others believe to be George Bush's strong suit: foreign policy. The consensus is so strong that even challenger Bill Clinton is following meekly in the president's footsteps on matters beyond the nation's borders.
But a closer look at President Bush's first-term foreign policy reveals a record as disastrous as his domestic performance. He has neglected unprecedented opportunities, claimed credit for achievements he did little to earn, and shirked responsibility for problems of his own making. Consider:
Ending the cold war: Mr. Bush inherited the most promising opportunity of this century to shift national and global priorities during the brief era of good feeling after the collapse of communism. Communism's demise resulted from many factors, few related to the Bush presidency. Inefficient and corrupt, communism was also defeated by its rigidity, the resistance of brave dissidents, Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika, and the West's affluence. By the time Bush assumed office, the 40-year argument between Ea st and West was essentially over.
Handed this stunning opportunity, Bush abdicated his role as head of the world's only remaining superpower. Generous with his rhetorical support for the "emerging democracies," he was parsimonious with material aid, opposing Soviet membership in IMF and blocking suggestions of a coordinated assistance program. He was so neglectful that it took communism's arch-adversary, Richard Nixon, to prompt him to act.
But now the opportunity has passed. In the fiscally troubled aftermath of the Gulf war, neither the US, Germany, nor Japan feels very generous.
Left to fend for itself in the perilous transition to democracy, the East is plunging into an ancient cycle of economic distress, social unrest, and conflict. Bush stands idle before crimes every bit as monstrous as Iraq's invasion of Kuwait or Saddam's persecution of Iraqi Shiites. But he does find time and resources to pursue his lingering nemesis, Saddam Hussein.
The Gulf war: Information now emerging reveals an inconsistent handling of Saddam over the years. Bush treated a man he knew was dangerous as an ally. He overrode objections of his export agencies, ignored reports of human rights violations and weapons shipments, and winked approval of Saddam's behavior until days before the invasion.
Among the unanswered questions: Why was Bush so insistent on pushing the world to war? Was it coincidental that Congress was just then starting to consider cashing in the peace dividend from the cold-war meltdown? Was it merely by chance that the war was packaged as a smashingly effective ad for US weaponry?
A "new world order": Few of Bush's phrases are as murky as his proud declaration of a "new world order." He did utilize the United Nations to an unprecedented degree to marshal an international alliance to recapture Kuwait. But in the view of some observers, it was more manipulation than cooperation, using the Security Council as a fig leaf to legitimize a military offensive wholly dominated by US forces and contrary in strategy and spirit to any previous peacekeeping operation since Korea. But in the wa r's aftermath, despite rapidly rising demands for UN peacekeepers from Bosnia to Somalia, the US remains the organization's largest debtor nation. It owes over $200 billion for UN peacekeeping operations alone.
The Middle East: Prospects have recently brightened in this region, thanks in part to the efforts of Bush's former secretary of state, James Baker. Bush's insistence on withholding Israeli loan guarantees until Israel forswore new settlements on the West Bank helped usher in a reform regime in Israel apparently ready to deal with the Palestinians. But now, at the most critical moment in negotiations, he has pulled his negotiator back to the White House to run his troubled reelection campaign.
Meanwhile, his administration markets US-made arms to a gun-glutted Middle East (and elsewhere).
Why, given this record, does the president still enjoy high public esteem for his performance as a world leader? Why do even Democrats shrink from criticizing a foreign policy that has been, at the least, inconsistent and ineffectual - and perhaps a good deal worse? Perhaps we should be asking a version of the familiar question that haunted Jimmy Carter: "Is the world better off today than it was four years ago?"
Bush can't be held personally responsible for the current state of global affairs any more than he can claim credit for so great and complex an event as the end of the cold war. But as he campaigns for a second term on the basis of his "strong suit," foreign policy, it is well to remember this record. Far from being an untarnished triumph, his tenure as world leader had been characterized by failure of judgment and will, a misdirection of historic proportions.
As voters weigh the candidates' records, they should not assume Bush's foreign policy is unassailable. His term has been marked by squandered opportunities.