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Strengths, Limits of U.S. Foreign Policy Evident

First in a series

March 14, 2004|Doyle McManus and Sonni Efron | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — When the United States invaded Iraq a year ago this week, the action transformed American foreign policy in the Middle East and around the world -- but not always as its strategists intended.

The fall of Baghdad after only 21 days of combat gave the world a vivid lesson in the scope of U.S. military might. But the difficulties that followed in Iraq -- a year of uphill battles against political chaos, economic collapse and a stubborn insurgency -- provided an equally striking lesson in the boundaries of American power when it comes to waging peace.

"Iraq is about our limits rather than our reach," said Lee Feinstein of the Council on Foreign Relations.

The burden of building a new Iraq, said Graham Allison of Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, has sapped U.S. resources from other foreign policy priorities -- including the pursuit of terrorists elsewhere.

"What has been undertaken [in Iraq] is something hugely ambitious," he said. "Our plate is full, and it's full for some time. We're not physically constrained, we're just constrained in terms of political realities."

President Bush and his aides insist that committing thousands of troops and billions of dollars to Iraq hasn't subtracted from their ability to deal with challenges anywhere else. But the administration, which only a year ago was willing to invade Iraq without the support of many of its foreign allies, has scrambled recently to win international help not only in Iraq, but also to meet challenges in Iran, Afghanistan, North Korea and Haiti.

The yearlong experience in Iraq has wrought other far-reaching effects on U.S. foreign policy:

* The war was the first test of what has been called the Bush doctrine, the assertion that the United States may launch a preventive war against any country thought to hold weapons of mass destruction if it consorts with terrorists. But the war also has been the only instance of that rule being invoked; Iran, North Korea and Syria, which all arguably qualify, have not been attacked. As a result, scholars aren't sure whether Iraq was the beginning of a pattern or, as now appears possible, merely the high-water mark of an assertive policy.

* The war put other countries on notice that they had better shape up -- and, Bush aides argue, produced an immediate effect on Libya, whose mercurial leader, Col. Moammar Kadafi, announced the end of his efforts to build chemical and nuclear weapons. But the hoped-for "demonstration effect" doesn't seem to have worked on North Korea, Iran or Syria -- at least, not yet.

* The war ruptured U.S. relationships with Cold War allies such as Germany and France, ties that only now are being repaired. In the eyes of much of the global public, it made U.S. foreign policy appear aggressive and menacing, a dent in the nation's image that may take years to repair.

* The war accelerated a remarkable -- and risky -- shift in U.S. policy in the Arab world. For half a century, the United States sought stability in the world's most important oil region by supporting friendly dictators, but now the Bush administration says it has ambitious plans to promote rapid political change leading to democracy -- even in conservative monarchies such as Saudi Arabia.

"If the Middle East is to leave behind stagnation and tyranny and violence for export, then freedom must flourish in every corner of the region," Condoleezza Rice, Bush's national security advisor, said in a speech last month.

But some foreign policy experts outside the administration worry that the Bush administration has bitten off more than it can chew -- in foreign policy-speak, that the United States may be "overextended."

"The idea that we could launch another preemptive strike or preventive war along the lines of the Bush doctrine is not impossible, but it would be a stretch," said Joseph S. Nye, dean of Harvard's Kennedy School and a Pentagon official during the Clinton administration.

"We're not overextended in the sense that we're about to collapse, but we'd have to increase the size of the Army and the defense budget, and in an era of deficits, that would be difficult."

Nye and other scholars say the greatest constraint on U.S. power -- especially in an election year -- is the willingness of Congress and the public to support military expeditions that cost lives and money.

Dmitri K. Simes, president of the Nixon Center, a largely Republican think tank, warned in a recent essay that the Bush administration was trying to do too much when it made democracy in the Middle East one of its major goals.

"The pursuit of [a] universal democratic utopia, as attractive as it may seem, is damaging vital U.S. interests," he wrote. "The principal problem is the mistaken belief that democracy is a talisman for all the world's ills, and that the United States has a responsibility to promote democratic government wherever in the world it is lacking."

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