All this talk of a new American policy in a new post-Cold War world is being revealed as so much froth by Washington's budget crisis. It is bizarre that we are overrunning with imaginative ruminations on what is the national interest abroad but cannot grasp that the first national interest is solvency and control over our destiny at home. No foreign triumph, not even the best possible outcome in the Gulf, could bring us as much in true national value as what we are wasting and forgoing by our casual attitude to the most serious matters directly under our noses. I try to listen carefully to my betters on these issues, and it scares me.
If what is happening in this country were happening in the Soviet Union -- and in fact, every day Washington's turmoil comes to look a bit more like some aspects of Moscow's -- then we would be reflecting on the theme of a breakdown of the political system and culture. As it is, we choose to call the current situation a budget crisis. But it is a crisis of governance and political values at the core, expressed in a chronic inability to set priorities and make hard choices and an adolescent reluctance to accept the consequences of our acts.
President Bush is chided for preferring the abstractions and personal heroics of foreign policy to the domestic nitty-gritty. Well, who wouldn't? Soviet-American summits are a lot more fun than budget summits. In this matter, however, Bush is the people's choice. We applaud Mikhail Gorbachev's retreat from active international engagement to tend to domestic cares. We are blind to the contradiction of moving into a costly, treacherous international whirlpool precisely as our way of doing essential political and economic business is unmasked as inadequate verging on farcical. Typically, incredibly, the costs of Desert Shield are off budget.
Foreign countries, especially our friends, puzzle over what to make of our inconsistency. They see a country with the international apparatus of a superpower -- the fleet, the diplomatic reach, the instinct for command, the taste for engagement and risk and even war -- and they enjoy the benefits of American globalism today. At the same time, they see a country breezily negligent of a nation's duty to prepare for tomorrow -- in financial stability, economic competitiveness, educational and technological striving. They look down the road and wonder.
Basic attitudes are out of synch: We complain noisily of our friends' reluctance to share the burdens of the current crisis. They puzzle quietly over how we could be so cavalier about the requirements of future strength. When one of them, like Japan's Shintaro Ishihara, says so out loud, we take offense.
It's a fair question why we are so cavalier, and it cannot be avoided by pointing, with Jack Kemp, for instance, at the more creditable features of American economic performance: the record eight-year expansion, the creation of more than 21.5 million jobs since 1981, and so forth.
One possibility is that we have allowed ourselves to be distracted, through the '80s by the excitements of the Reagan crusade and in the '90s by the celebration of a great historical triumph for our ideas of democracy and free enterprise. Other explanations run to other features or supposed defects of our national character and historical experience.
In Washington, however, the standard necessary remedy for cultural inheritances and ideological afflictions of all sorts is political leadership. The reduction of all difficulties to this coin is what Washington is truly about. In the budget talks, Bush finally responded in his fashion, coming on in a late surge of personal assertiveness to demand a modest reversal of his party's decade-long disdain for bits of taxes and pieces of consumer sacrifice. Unsurprisingly, he fell short. It is taking some time to move on, and he is looking awful.
Meanwhile, Americans go on indulging, in the Gulf and elsewhere, what Michael Kinsley nicely called a "hunger for larger purpose" in American foreign policy. But surely the premise of any such effort to go beyond a no-frills basic-national-interest policy has got to be the prior effective management of the domestic enterprise. You do not have to be a neo-isolationist or a "declinist" or any other of these new birds in the foreign policy aviary to believe that there must be a strong economic and social foundation for flights of foreign purpose. Otherwise we beckon glory and fiasco at the same time, and while perhaps neither will be achieved in full measure, it is a very unequal and unnerving competition.