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Bush's big chance


THE MOMENT has come for the president of the United States to step up to his obligation to form and articulate U.S. foreign policy in the wake of the death of communism and the breakup of the Soviet Union. The forum is the U.N. session opening this week in New York.

The need for a substantive speech, now scheduled for Monday, Sept. 23, is all the more pressing because his last attempt -- his dismaying "Chicken Kiev" speech in Ukraine on Aug. 1 -- betrayed a misconceptual framework.

That was the first address by a U.S. president that had to be followed by an op-ed article by his national security adviser to explain that what he said was not what he meant.

It came with ill grace for Bush to implicitly derogate his presidential predecessors from Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan, who waged and won the Cold War, for having engaged Soviet leaders "in duels of eloquent bluff and bravado."

Worse was his dire warning to the peoples of Ukraine, the Baltics and other republics seeking independence from central Moscow rule that "Americans will not support those who seek independence in order to replace a far-off tyranny with a local despotism. They will not aid those who promote a suicidal nationalism based upon ethnic hatred."

That was to shore up the Gorbachev communist centralizers against the likes of the Yeltsin separatists.

Though Brent Scowcroft later insisted no pro-union purpose was intended, the plain truth was emphasized in another line: "America's first system of government -- the Continental Congress -- failed because the states were too suspicious of one another and the central government too weak to protect commerce and individual rights."

Came the putsch and its counter-coup, and the restive republics scrapped centralism to create just the sort of loose articles of confederation Bush had instructed them were such a failure in our experience.

Small wonder Secretary of State James A. Baker III received such a lukewarm reception in the Baltic republics the other day. (The U.S., shamefully, was 39th to recognize their freedom, just after Mongolia.)

The people knew their independence came despite the Bush administration's historically wrongheaded support of Moscow central.

OK, so the Bush foreign policy zigged while the world zagged, and the U.S. found itself sadly mispositioned on the central issue of our time. That was last month. This is now; time to abandon the old New World Order based on a Gemini hegemony and to set forward the new New World Order based on a high-flying eagle and a multipolar bear.

Can President Bush come up with a conceptual framework in the short time remaining? Yes, if he stops his frenetic travel and lectern-pounding to focus on his U.N. speech.

For openers, quote President Benjamin Harrison, who said in 1888: "We have no commission from God to police the world."

Propose to intervene only to protect vital interests, as when an aggressor builds or buys nuclear weaponry. Invite world participation in our space shield to safeguard everyone from nuclear blackmail or accidental missile launch.

State our intent to increase the momentum for freedom around the world, helping those who root out the communists still lying in the weeds, creating financial magnets and laws to attract free-enterprise investments. Promise to use our economic retaliatory power to break tariff barriers and crush cartels.

Show how we will provide humanitarian aid in the spirit of our past generosity, expecting our prosperous trading partners to do the same, remembering that help toward self-help is the best help -- no Marshall Plans or grandiose designs, especially when assets are wasted on standing armies and legions of spies.

A week is plenty of time to create the "Bush Doctrine." No State Department Pablum; no 15-minute package claiming leadership without being leaderly; no historic mistakes that call for op-ed clarification.

Take note pad in hand, Mr. President, and show how America intends to participate in, rather than continue to observe, the sweep of history in the run-up to the millennium.

By rising to this intellectual challenge, you will earn the world's attention at your next great forum, in Hawaii three months from now: aboard the battleship Missouri on the 50th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor.


William Safire is a columnist for the New York Times

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