"Until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989," Bill Bradley said at Tufts University on Monday, "we were sure about one thing: We knew where we stood on foreign policy." As an assertion of American Cold War consensus, Bradley's statement is either vacuous or preposterous.

It is vacuous if it means only that there was a consensus about wanting to contain the Soviet Union without nuclear war. It is preposterous if it means there was consensus about matters other than that arid generality--matters about which policymakers had to make hard, high-stakes choices.

Early in the Cold War there were sharp and bitter differences about collective security ("entangling alliances"). Later there were sharp and bitter differences about the nature, aims and likely evolution of the Soviet Union. By the late 1960s many Democrats believed Soviet arms spending was primarily reactive to America's. President Carter's secretary of state, Cyrus Vance, said Leonid Brezhnev "shares our dreams and aspirations."

There were bitter differences about the use of conventional U.S. forces (in Korea, Vietnam and even Grenada), about nuclear deterrence (in the early 1980s much of Bradley's party, including Bradley, went on an ideological toot in favor of a "nuclear freeze"), about ballistic missile defense as an alternative to reliance on "mutual assured destruction," and about aid to anticommunist insurgencies (e.g., the Nicaraguan contras).

At Tufts, describing the dissolution of the Cold War policy consensus that he retroactively postulates, Bradley said there still are times and places where "the national interest is clear: Iraq, 1991." Clear? The Senate's Jan. 12, 1991, vote on the crucial question of going to war was 52-47.

Bradley's most important vote in his 18 years in the Senate was cast that day in opposition to authorizing the use of U.S. forces to expel Iraq from Kuwait. It is obvious today, and was not much less so then, that Bradley and 46 other senators, 44 of them Democrats, made a major misjudgment.

Bradley made his vote into an exercise in having his cake and eating it too: He preferred to "continue economic sanctions now while keeping open the possibility of war later." But he criticized the size of President Bush's deployment of U.S. forces because "it meant we could not rotate troops to continue a consistent threat over the long term." So Bradley's policy was to deploy a force sufficient to deter further aggression but insufficient to win a military victory, and wait for sanctions to do what sanctions have never done, reverse the conquest of one nation by another nation.

Bradley said a military deployment sufficient to deter further Iraqi aggression, combined with economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation, "sent the message to Saddam Hussein that we would be patient and steadfast in our insistence that he must leave Kuwait if he ever wished to rejoin the community of nations."

But nothing about Hussein suggested that he valued his membership card in that "community." Yet Bradley praised the economic sanctions as "unprecedented in their breadth and impact," even though there was no noticeable impact of the only sort that mattered--on Hussein.

January 1991 was, Bradley said, "far too early" to use force. He suggested a 10-month wait, until October, to "reopen the possibility" of force. By then, he said, force "may well prove . . . to be the only way" to liberate Kuwait. But wait. Bradley simultaneously said "I still believe" sanctions can work. Today Bradley's fustian about the sanctions as an "economic noose" that would "strangle" Saddam Hussein does not read well. Nine years later the sanctions are fraying and Hussein is unwavering in his willingness to accept economic punishment rather than compromise his pursuit of weapons of mass destruction.

Bradley prophesied dire consequences of the use of force--civil chaos in Iraq, sweeping Arab hostility and terrorism toward America, soaring oil prices, thousands of American deaths leading to isolationist sentiment--and he concluded, characteristically, by suggesting that those who differed with him did so because of intellectual laziness or obtuseness: "President Bush and Secretary Baker apparently have not addressed these four most probable outcomes from using massive military force." Bradley said they had apparently not thought through the consequences.

Bradley's tone--a lofty regret that the people who differ with him do not think, as he does, deeply--was quickly refuted by events that proved that Bush and Baker had thought much more clearly than Bradley had.

The most important vote Al Gore cast in his 16-year congressional career was on Jan. 12, 1991, when he was one of only 10 Democrats to vote for the use of force.