Status Quo Plus-Plus-Plus

March 31, 1992

Bush administration foreign policy started out as a "status quo-plus" operation, with the emphasis on status quo, and more than three years later the description still fits. Well, let's make it "status quo-plus-plus-plus." The Bush-Baker-Scowcroft team did pull off the gulf war, seize the moment on German reunification and push Middle East negotiations. But on the whole this administration was and remains as compulsively cautious as any American government could be.

This week, after months of hesitation, President Bush will unveil his plan for long-range economic support for the tottering states of the former Soviet Union. Foreign leaders futilely implored him to take action months ago. Richard Nixon called the U.S. effort "pathetically inadequate." Only as an International Monetary Fund deadline approaches will the president step forward to put his personal authority behind fulfillment of a $12 billion IMF pledge. If it passes Congress in an election year, it will be because Democrats restrain themselves.

This pattern is repeated on many fronts. Mr. Bush has been loath to move front and center on world trade reform as protectionism flares in both parties. He has taken the role of chief foot-dragger on international environmental issues in advance of the "Earth Summit" in Rio de Janeiro. He has resisted changes in the European security scene that might endanger the position of NATO. On Yugoslavia's breakup and Turkey's human rights violations against its Kurdish minority, he has essentially left matters to the Europeans.

Some of these decisions were arguably correct from the beginning and others may be judged the height of wisdom by history. This, after all, is a president who prides himself as an expert in foreign policy. Among his closest allies are Secretary James A. Baker III, a close-to-the-chest deal-maker, and Brent Scowcroft, the national security adviser who coined the "status quo-plus" phrase. Impulsive they are not. Nor are they as responsive to swings in public opinion as their boss.

Mr. Bush's refusal to take punitive action against the Chinese regime after the Tiananmen Square massacre is a case in point. Another, even more controversial decision, was to call off the gulf war before U.S. decimation of Saddam Hussein's forces could lead to the disintegration of Iraq. Pressure on Israel to halt West Bank settlements is an unusual stance for a president in an election year.

While Mr. Bush may feel he is entitled to high grades for his conduct of foreign policy, there is a danger his penchant for the status quo could hinder some otherwise monumental first-term achievements. He has not forced the pace in trade negotiations under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and, now, it is probably too late to get an accord and push it through Congress this year. Likewise, the president may have to leave formulation of a clear U.S. policy on European security and the former Soviet states to his second term -- or to his successor.

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