It must be exasperating for the White House to watch Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev taking bows in the East and the West like some conquering Caesar. But on the global scale in which the Bush Administration surely will one day learn to operate, exasperation is what makes big-league diplomats really turn on the charm, not lapse into name-calling.
If it was the purpose of Marlin Fitzwater, White House press secretary, in calling Gorbachev a "drugstore cowboy" to cut the Soviet leader down to size in the eyes of the world, he failed. For one thing, the slur belongs to an earlier generation, and few Americans and fewer Russians know what it means. Even the lexicons leave some question about whether a drugstore cowboy is more a fraud than a fox.
Instead of knocking Gorbachev off his pedestal, the episode simply emphasized again that Bush so far has failed to articulate what he wants for his nation in a world of rapid change, and how he can best get it, particularly when it involves dealing with Gorbachev. Worse, all that his advertised review of foreign policy strategy has produced along that line is another voice from the past, a proposal to let reconnaissance planes fly at will over both eastern and western countries.
What the nation needs from its President now is a strategy for moving as fast as possible to trim nuclear arsenals to whatever minimum number is needed to deter conventional war.
It needs quick and massive reductions in ground and tactical air forces that face each other in Central Europe, along the lines already suggested--again taking the initiative--by Gorbachev.
Perhaps even more important is the need for a coherent strategy for disengaging Eastern European nations from the control of--indeed the armed occupation by--the Soviet Union and letting them turn toward their historic roots in the West. That must be done without the kinds of sudden moves that might lead to violence and, in turn, far more serious confrontation between East and West than now exists. It will take considerably more delicate maneuvering than the trips Bush plans to Poland and Hungary, both of which may look good on television, but neither of which can substitute for years of solid and difficult diplomacy.
The United States also needs to hold the North Atlantic Treaty Organization together for as long as it takes to achieve the other goals. But the sluggish pace of strategic thought in the White House these days not only risks but also encourages a breakup of the Western Alliance.
Bush should be more concerned than he seems to be, for example, that Paul H. Nitze, former chief arms control adviser for President Reagan, is appalled at the Bush Administration's opposition to West Germany's yearning for negotiations with the Soviets to reduce the stock of short-range nuclear missiles that are on its land, or pointed at its land. Nitze provided much of the intellectual justification for hard-line U.S. positions in the Cold War and has worked just as hard in recent years to take advantage of the opportunity for a thaw.
The Soviets have fallen back into sullen old habits as a result of the argument over whether to modernize U.S. short-range missiles or negotiate smaller arsenals. Twice in the past week, ranking Soviet officials have threatened to leave in place some SS-23 missiles that they agreed more than a year ago to take out of the European theater under the INF treaty that called for abolishing an entire class of U.S. and Soviet medium range missiles. In typical Cold War rhetoric, the Soviets are now engaged in endless denials that such a clear violation of the treaty would be no violation at all.
Sooner or later, Bush will discover that these and other irritations and exasperations tend to grow when the superpowers are yelling at one another instead of talking with one another. He will have a better chance to achieve the nation's goals if he makes the discovery sooner.