WASHINGTON — Bush Administration foreign policy strategists, seeking to redefine America's priorities in a post-Cold War world, are quietly streamlining U.S. involvement in--or withdrawing altogether from--areas where Washington once expended considerable influence and money.
The process, called "prioritization" by one senior strategist, is among the key assignments facing policy planning staffs at the State Department, Pentagon and National Security Council, Administration sources say.
In contrast to the Administration's patchwork response to many international crises since the advent of the "new world order" almost two years ago, the new approach represents the first real effort to establish clear criteria to guide future foreign policy decisions.
The emerging theme of the new strategy is "selective engagement"--a distinct break from the interventionist American policy of containment pursued over the past 40 years in an effort to block Communist expansion. It also is a departure from the American policy of "constructive engagement" employed in various international crises of the past decade.
"The policy of containment meant involvement everywhere," one Pentagon strategist said. "With no need for containment, we can become more selective. Places where U.S. policy played a role in the past will simply not get much attention in the future."
The Pentagon official said the new strategy is bound to be "tough" and "controversial" because it mandates less--and in some cases no--American involvement in countries or regions where the United States previously has intervened.
While the United States continues to play a leadership role in important geo-strategic areas, such as the Middle East and the Commonwealth of Independent States, the new strategy already is reflected in a significant reduction in American commitments around the world.
And experts say it contrasts sharply with the two foreign policy "triumphs" that heralded the emergence last year of American preeminence in global affairs--Operation Desert Storm and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The American role in the Yugoslav crisis is one example. Despite a 1990 CIA report predicting Yugoslavia's demise, the White House continued to back territorial integrity rather than self-determination. As Yugoslavia proceeded to disintegrate, the Administration opted to let the European Community take the lead in responding to the worst violence on the Continent since World War II.
When the EC moved to recognize Croatia and Slovenia in 1991, the United States delayed making its own decision until 1992. And while Washington is partially credited with preparing the way for U.N. sanctions against Serbia last month, the move came only after Europe failed to act to end the bloodshed in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
The American intervention was both reluctant and belated, a role reflecting the minimalist approach being adopted in Washington, several private U.S. analysts say.
The new approach was officially reflected in a dramatic reversal of the Pentagon's vision of future U.S. foreign policy. The first version of a classified Pentagon planning document for 1994-99, leaked earlier this year, advocated a single-superpower world and an activist role for the United States in containing potential rivals--even current allies in Europe and Asia.
In stark contrast, a revised version of the document, leaked last month, stresses collective action and implicitly calls for a lower American profile worldwide, saying: "The United States remains a nation with global interests, but we must re-examine in light of the new defense strategy whether and to what extent particular challenges engage our interests."
While the "new world order" has been widely interpreted as calling for collective action, several recent crises ended up in the hands of the United Nations or other international organizations, primarily because they did not engage U.S. interests. America's unwillingness or inability to forge a consensus in these situations is a departure from Washington's direct leadership role in the U.N.-sanctioned Gulf War coalition.
The gradual shift has become even more visible in several parts of the world where the United States has either opted for others to take the lead or limited its involvement in recent months.
While U.S. action--or inaction--in such cases may reflect the rush of events or the complexity of specific crises, analysts say a clear pattern is emerging.
The Administration deferred to the Organization of American States when democracy was suspended in Haiti and Peru. When multilateral efforts failed to set things right, Washington opted to prevent fleeing Haitians from seeking refuge at the U.S. Navy base in Guantanamo, Cuba, and to withdraw U.S. counter-narcotics teams from Peru, the main grower of the raw material for cocaine consumed in the United States.