WASHINGTON -- George Bush launches himself today back into the heady realm of international statesmanship that once served his image so well but lately appears to have lost its political advantage.
Political advisers had hoped this five-day journey to Poland, Finland and Germany -- probably his last overseas trip before the fall elections -- would give a desperately needed boost to Mr. Bush's sinking prospects for a second term.
But now they say the president will do well simply to break the string of bad luck that has jinxed each of his foreign trips this year and called into question the diplomatic craftsmanship considered his strongest asset.
What people remember most about his trip to Japan in January is that he got sick.
Last month he was treated like a pariah at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janiero in Brazil.
And on the road to Rio he made the mistake of stopping off in Panama, where anti-U.S. demonstrators sent him scuttling away from an open-air appearance with the scent of tear gas in his nostrils.
Now he's headed for the annual meeting of the seven leading industrialized nations in Munich, whose usefulness Treasury Secretary Nicholas F. Brady says "has begun to wane" into little more than an expensive photo opportunity.
Failing an unexpected break in the deadlock over international trade agreements, little of substance is expected to come from the three-day meeting -- or from Mr. Bush's planned side trips to Warsaw and Helsinki.
"Not showing up" would probably be the president's wisest course, said conservative critic Paul Craig Roberts.
Mr. Roberts said Mr. Bush could then dodge those who would otherwise say, " 'Here he is again, gone off with the foreigners instead of tending to business at home.' "
But at the White House and Bush-Quayle re-election campaign headquarters, people harbor the belief that Mr. Bush's long experience in diplomacy and his generally successful record in that arena can make the difference in a contest against two foreign policy novices: Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton and Texas businessman Ross Perot.
Especially with the economy still faltering and the president's poll ratings in the sub-basement, Mr. Bush needs to take advantage of the opportunity to remind America of what it likes best about him, his advisers believe.
He may try to do that in part by focusing attention on the allied response to the bloody conflict in Bosnia, which is expected to be discussed both at the Group of Seven session in Munich and at a meeting Thursday in Helsinki of the 52-member Commission on European Security and Cooperation.
Though humanitarian relief efforts for Sarajevo are being conducted through the United Nations, Mr. Bush and his summit partners are likely to highlight the Balkans in hopes of distracting from failure to make progress on the economic front, predicts C. Michael Aho, director of economic studies at the Council of Foreign Relations.
Even so, Bush advisers believe the president needs to bring something back from Munich that can quickly translate into economic benefits at home.
Administration officials played down expectations that progress might be made in a dispute over farm subsidies that has for years obstructed advances in the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, known as GATT. But U.S. negotiators were meeting over the weekend with representatives of the EuropeanCommunity in hopes of scoring a breakthrough.
Robert D. Hormats, an investment banker and former State Department official, suggested Mr. Bush might decide simply to accept the European position wherever it stands and to declare victory.
Bush surrogates throughout the country are standing by to extol the virtues of whatever emerges, campaign officials say.
But even dramatic success on a seemingly arcane trade agreement will be tough to translate into a pithy sound-bite.
"He can come home from Munich talking about GATT, and it will produce the My-Eyes-Glaze-Over syndrome," said Kevin Phillips, a Republican political commentator.
Mr. Bush is taking part today in an emotional ceremony in Warsaw that may endear him to Polish-Americans, who make up a major chunk of the electorate in Baltimore and some other cities.
He will be helping to give a final tribute to Ignace Jan Paderewski, the musician and philanthropist who served as Poland's prime minister but died in exile in the United States after the Nazis took over his country.
But these days it's doubtful that the president can get enough of a political lift out of any foreign activity -- short of a major world crisis -- to unite the country behind him.
"For 50 years we worried about whose finger was on the button, but there's no button anymore," observed Michael K. Deaver, who served as chief image-maker for Ronald Reagan. "It's all changed."
Even the the dramatic arms-control agreement he reached in Washington two weeks ago with Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin failed to produce the sort of political dividend the Bush campaign hoped for.
A New York Times/CBS poll conducted at the time the agreement was announced showed the president's job approval rating still gliding downward as it has since January. Forty-six percent of those questioned said they approved of Mr. Bush's handling of foreign policy, but that wasn't enough to push his overall approval rating higher than 34 percent.
"Nobody would have dreamed that [agreement] was possible four years ago, and it is tremendous," Mr. Bush boasted peevishly to a group of law enforcement officials last week. "And yet people go, 'Ho-hum, what have you done lately?' "
Exploiting Mr. Bush's foreign policy performance for political gain has been a frustrating business since the presidential primary season began last fall.
Just a year ago, it appeared the patriotic fervor inspired by the flashy impressions of victory over Saddam Hussein would carry Mr. Bush to a second term without much of a contest.
But the yellow-ribbon mania cooled off quickly when soldiers came home to unemployment lines and other Americans started losing homes, jobs and businesses.
The president has tried repeatedly to rekindle the euphoria he enjoyed during Operation Desert Storm -- using at one point campaign advertisements featuring his visit to U.S. troops in the Saudi desert -- but he keeps hitting a cold wall of indifference.
Now it appears the Persian Gulf war could become a liability for Mr. Bush.
The White House faces questions about whether the Reagan and Bush administrations helped arm the Iraqi war machine that had to be driven out of Kuwait. The awesome appearance of military success has begun to sag in the face of evidence that commanders exaggerated or misled the public.
"A lot of the political work we're doing is defensive," said one administration official involved in trying to head off a broader inquiry into the issue.
Some antennae at the White House picked up on the changing political climate in time to recast Mr. Bush's trip to Japan last winter as a trade mission for "jobs, jobs, jobs." But expectations were raised too high, administration officials now concede, and the president was openly criticized by some automobile industry executives he'd taken along as guests.
The executives themselves were ridiculed for taking such high salaries.
The Earth Summit in Rio was probably a no-win proposition for Mr. Bush from the start, since much of the world was determined to set environmental standards that the administration says would impose prohibitive costs on the U.S. economy.
He decided to go anyway, and he delivered a defensive address that emphasized his concern for U.S. jobs but didn't make him look like much of a world leader.
Worse for his image, though, aides say, was the front-page picture of Mr. Bush fleeing a cloud of tear gas during his brief stop in Panama City on the way to Rio.
Though administration officials now contend they always believed an open-air rally in such a volatile country was ill-advised, apparently no one tried very hard to dissuade Mr. Bush from going.
"We can barely get people to remember Desert Storm, let alone Panama," grumbled a senior aide at the State Department.