The Bush administration has been making policy the way the president "recreates" -- with what seems like unseemly haste. In Washington, the policies of decades have been reversed, others implemented, arms sales galore proposed, grand security alliances announced and then abandoned. All of it has been done in the manner in which the president plays golf: much too quickly to be much good.
It seems only yesterday that Secretary of State James Baker III proposed a kind of NATO alliance for the Persian Gulf region. The birth of such alliances usually has a Congress of Vienna quality to it. But this one, announced by Baker at a congressional hearing, was literally here one day, gone the next and has not been mentioned since. Hopalong Baker just galloped on.
Without so much as changing horses, the secretary of state went to Syria. That nation happens to be ruled by a dictator, Hafez Assad, who is every bit as ruthless as Saddam Hussein. What's more, Syria has been for terrorist groups what Delaware is for corporate headquarters -- a nice place to do business. No matter. Syria is our ally of the moment, maybe of the future as well. What is our new policy toward Syria and what does it mean for our friendship with Israel? It's safe to say no one knows the answer to those questions.
No matter. The pace continues. Both Baker and the secretary of the Treasury, Nicholas Brady, went off around the world, seeking money for our Persian Gulf effort. Japan kicked in a few billion. Germany came up with some dough, too. It was all very nice, very supportive, but like everything else the administration has been doing of late, it was done with nary a thought to the long-range consequences.
For instance, both Germany and Japan either stated or suggested that the time might be right to change their respective constitutions so that they might become militarily more involved in world affairs. To these statements, the Bush administration uttered not a peep. But is this a good thing? Isn't the prospect of Germany and Japan once again becoming military powers -- even modest ones, initially -- worth discussing? Must everything be kicked over in the name of kicking over Saddam Hussein?
It seems it must. On a dime, the administration reversed the long-standing policy of keeping the Soviets out of the Middle East. Maybe it was high time that policy was abandoned; after all, it's not the Russia of old we're dealing with. But whatever the case, policy was changed without, it seems, much thought. It was certainly changed without much discussion. Congress has been mostly content to let Bush do what he likes in the Middle East. If it has an objection -- even a thought -- it's not readily apparent.
Now, though, there are some faint stirrings. In the House, hearings have been held on the way the administration bungled its dealings with Saddam Hussein in the days before his invasion of Kuwait. It now appears that in almost every possible way, Washington signaled Baghdad that its dispute with Kuwait was nothing short of boring. We were not only uninterested, but disinterested as well. A day after the invasion, all that changed.
And now also some members of Congress are reacting angrily to the administration's overly hasty proposal for a Saudi arms sale -- the second sale suggested by the administration since Iraq conquered Kuwait. The administration wanted a done deal and wanted it quickly, but in the face of congressional criticism is now indicating it may have moved too fast. The F-15s Washington wants to sell to Riyadh are not going to make an immediate difference in the showdown with Iraq. But they could make a difference in some Arab showdown with Israel. That ought to be taken into account -- at least discussed.
President Bush's handling of the Middle East crisis has been a bravura performance. But it's been limited to the second act. The first -- the administration's handling of Saddam Hussein before the Kuwait invasion -- was a botch, and the third act has yet to be played. The fact is that the war that might be coming might well have been avoided.
So it's a bit too early for Bush to be acting as if his foreign policy instincts are unerringly right and for Congress to act so awed. After all, Bush was wrong on China both before and after the Tiananmen Square massacre, wrong in his initial assessment of Mikhail Gorbachev and wrong on Iraq before its invasion of Kuwait. In foreign policy as in golf, this president needs to take his time -- if only to think.