GEORGE BUSH has often been a target of for his alleged lack of vision in foreign policy. Bill Clinton's recent characterization of United States diplomacy, as "reactive, rudderless, and erratic," was only the latest assault on a president whose decisiveness during the Gulf war seems a distant memory. Even Republicans, such as former President Richard Nixon, have faulted the president for responding rather than shaping events.
In many respects, these criticisms are misplaced. The White House has advanced a number of clear goals, ranging from broad themes like a "New World Order" to more specific formulations such as "Europe: Whole, Prosperous, and Free." A close reading of presidential speeches reveals careful and meticulous attention to enunciating principles that will guide US policy.
Nor do criticisms about President Bush's "prudence" on issues such as aid to the Soviet Union hold up when placed in context. The White House revealed its major assistance package for the Commonwealth of Independent States less than 100 days after Yeltsin's government took power - a period roughly comparable to the 15 weeks it took Harry Truman to launch the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan.
Yet, in spite of these efforts, neither the administration's pronouncements nor policies have taken hold in the public mind. The perception remains that the White House lacks a coherent blueprint for framing US diplomacy. As an observer wrote recently in the New York Times, "Never has the lack of vision in Washington been more obvious."
Rhetoric aside, many of these laments reflect a yearning for a simpler, less complicated era. A more likely explanation for the administration's perceived lack of vision rests with the nature of the times rather than a Bush failure to articulate a coherent framework. If the thought of being hanged tends to concentrate the mind, the existence of a clear and present danger provides a compelling focal point for foreign policy.
In 1941 the danger Germany posed to Britain was so extreme that Churchill remarked: "I have only one purpose, the destruction of Hitler, and my life is much simplified thereby." Similarly, George Kennan authored the doctrine of containment in 1946 to alert his countrymen to what he saw as a grave threat: a Soviet push into Europe, Asia, and the Mideast. In these examples the enemy was clearly defined, the threat immediate (or seen so), and lines of battle clearly drawn.