THEY appear minutes after a crisis erupts anywhere in the world and answer the TV news anchors' questions with a certain grim purpose. Their work at the Center for Unemployed US Under Secretaries, or possibly the Institute for Non-Lawyers from the Previous Administration, has established what must be done: Negotiations, followed by sanctions, and then airstrikes. Not necessarily in that order, of course.
They're pundits, and their proliferation on television is exerting ever-more pressure on United States government officials who make foreign policy.
Any administration that actually takes time to weigh issues and so falls a bit behind the pundit curve in speed and crispness risks looking evasive, or worse, sighs current US national security adviser Anthony Lake.
``But if you do respond immediately before you've had a chance to think through all the long-term implications, there is a possibility for making mistakes,'' Mr. Lake said during an interview last week. Lake is far from alone in making the charge. Ever since the Vietnam War, US presidents and their aides have complained that the intrusive eye of the camera sensationalizes foreign news while influencing policy and making it harder to manage.
The professorial Lake's point is that the pace of technological change may well magnify this influence many-fold in coming years. In the 500-channel fiber-optic future, pundits could have their own channel. Starving babies somewhere may be pictured 24 hours a day. Any administration will find it difficult to compete with explanations of its own actions and hard to think about anything but that day's news.
There is a flip side to this information flow. Over the years, the international-news content of television has tended to increase, educating Americans about the outside world and perhaps increasing support for remaining engaged in global affairs.
But TV also tends to take the particular - often the most tragic - and transform it into the universal, says Lake. A generation of Americans may grow up thinking the world is filled with people starving or killing each other.
``When the fact is the world is filled mostly with people just like us, going to work every day, trying to make a living,'' Clinton's security adviser says.
Not that any administration has to sit by helplessly while television sets its foreign-policy agenda. But TV's real effect, ABC's Nightline anchor Ted Koppel says, is to frame issues that the president or Congress have themselves failed to adequately define, or explain. He testified at a Congressional hearing on TV and foreign policy earlier this year.
TV is a superior policy weapon presidents can and do use to increase their flexibility of action and promote policies, historian Michael Beschloss told the same hearing, citing the Cuban missile crisis and the Persian Gulf War. TV does tend to encourage presidents to spend more time on flashy crisis management rather than calm, behind-the-scenes, mundane crisis prevention, Beschloss said.
Still, ``presidents who fail to craft an implicit or explicit television strategy while dealing with a foreign crisis do so at their peril,'' Beschloss told Congress.