PARIS — Paris. -- The idea that George Bush would attack Iraq to advance his electoral interests is not in the least implausible. It would have been an implausible act by most earlier presidents. Mr. Bush, however, has established for himself a record of cynicism in electoral matters, and also in foreign relations, that the country, if not himself, would have been better off without.
His two wars have both been peculiar affairs. A primary motivation for the U.S. attack on both Panama and Iraq seemed personal animosity felt by Mr. Bush for Gen. Manuel Noriega and for Iraq's President Saddam Hussein. The centralization of war power in the presidential office, the marginalization or neutralization of Congress, and the obstruction of press scrutiny, all have taken great bounds forward under the Reagan and Bush presidencies, contributing to a situation in which a president is .. held to no effective account for decisions of this kind.
However, if another attack is to take place on Iraq, Saddam Hussein has not been so foolish as to cooperate in providing the justification -- this week -- by obstructing U.N. inspections. His persecution of the Shi'ite minority in Iraq's south already has warranted international measures to create and defend a protection zone for them like the one already established for the Kurds in the north of Iraq. Hence it is reasonable to expect a military intervention of one kind or the other, certainly before November.
If only Washington and its allies could find the same zeal to protect not only the Bosnians in what was Yugoslavia, but also those ex-Yugoslavs who must expect to become the next victims of Serbian ethnic purge, notably but not exclusively the Albanians of Kosovo and the Hungarians of Vojvodina, both regions inside the present frontiers of Serbia. But Mr. Bush sees no electoral profit in prescience or political initiative in the Balkans, to avert still more horror.
And in Europe, since Mrs. Margaret Thatcher has left Downing Street, Britain has reverted to its previous foreign policy position, which is to have no independent foreign policy at all, but to follow Washington in whatever it does. Current holder of the European Community presidency, Britain is successfully imposing the same non-policy upon Europe. Only France is offering slight but ineffectual resistance to this program of inaction -- thus having things both ways.
Mr. Bush's reputation as a sound man on foreign policy has always seemed to me unfounded. He is expert in foreign relations, having spent his executive branch career exclusively in offices concerned with international matters. He obviously knows other countries and the major figures abroad.
But expertise and experience do not necessarily produce leadership, and the evidence is that Mr. Bush has over the years moved steadily upward toward an office for which he is intellectually and morally unqualified -- lacking, as he has plaintively said, the "vision" in world affairs expected from a president.
The two recent presidents who conducted successful foreign policies (whether you like or not what they did) were Harry Truman and Richard Nixon. Mr. Truman was, unlike Mr. Bush, a lifelong reader of history and also a man of formidable moral independence. He would never have remotely imagined advancing his personal electoral interests in disregard of the national interest. His curt dismissal for insubordination of the supremely popular Gen. Douglas MacArthur in 1951 was evidence of that.
Mr. Nixon also possessed a serious geopolitical intelligence, and of course was advised by a man of first-class abilities (and weaknesses, one might add), Henry Kissinger. Mr. Truman had the counsel of a group of officials, formed in the war, who were the best the modern U.S. foreign and military services have ever possessed.
But those were days when honor and prestige attached to the service of American government. Today, after two decades during which political candidates and parties have campaigned against Washington and against the government, just the opposite is true.
Mr. Bush has made foreign policy in the past in terms of electoral advantage, and he is doing so now with respect both to Yugoslavia and Iraq. The message that accompanies Washington's indifference to those suffering in Yugoslavia and those who will suffer if the bombs fall on Iraq is that they shouldn't take it too seriously, it's only politics.
William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.