Strengths, Limits of U.S. Foreign Policy Evident

Times Staff Writers

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.”

But Robert Kagan, one of the intellectuals -- often dubbed “neoconservatives” -- who long urged the administration to topple Saddam Hussein, argued that some measure of rhetorical overreach is an American tradition.

“Bush isn’t going to be able to do everything he says he would like to do,” said Kagan, a former Reagan administration official. “We will be hypocritical in some cases. But we’re like the 650-pound sumo wrestler. We have an effect on things just by getting into the ring.”


In fact, Kagan complained that Bush wasn’t aiming high enough. “You don’t hear much from the administration these days about democracy in Russia or democracy in China,” he said. “In those cases, democracy seems to be taking a backseat to the desire for good relations with great powers.”

Some of the administration’s rhetoric has been aimed at hostile countries, warning them that they too might face U.S. wrath if they don’t abandon efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction.

But North Korea, Iran and Syria show no signs of capitulating. In fact, some worry that the Iraq war had the perverse effect of spurring North Korea’s Kim Jong Il to redouble efforts to build a nuclear bomb to forestall a U.S. preemptive attack.

“The North Koreans have been highly confident that we were not about to pop ‘em because they have something Saddam Hussein didn’t have ... the ability to reach out and hurt people who matter to us,” said Stephen Bosworth, former U.S. ambassador to South Korea, where thousands of U.S. troops are based. “It is at least plausible that North Korea will have decided after Iraq that it is more important than ever for them to have what they describe as ‘a deterrent to U.S. aggression.’ ”


The Iraq war certainly ruined the sleep of many dictators, even if it didn’t change their behavior. The defeat of the most powerful of Arab armies with 115 U.S. casualties “leads other Arab rulers to recognize the unpalatable fact that they rule on the sufferance of the American president,” said Allison, who served in the Pentagon under President Clinton.

Nor did the war in Iraq have any apparent positive effect on the impasse in Israeli-Palestinian relations. The Bush administration has argued that the creation of a democratic Iraq could start a benign domino effect throughout the Arab world, including the Palestinian-ruled West Bank and Gaza Strip. But so far, the administration’s low-key efforts to encourage democratic Palestinians to replace their leader, Yasser Arafat, and to nudge Israel toward renewed peace negotiations have been unsuccessful.

Nevertheless, Yale University historian John Lewis Gaddis argues that the United States is in a far better position today in the Middle East than before the Iraq war. U.S. troops are no longer in Saudi Arabia; a dialogue about reform, however halting, has begun; and “the Arab street has not risen up in wrath, as critics predicted,” Gaddis said. He hailed the administration’s decision to signal an end to U.S. support for repressive Arab regimes.

One unexpected effect of the postwar setbacks: the Bush administration’s rediscovery of the value of alliances.


In Nye’s view, Bush’s decision to launch the war without U.N. endorsement damaged the U.S. image overseas in ways that went beyond cosmetics; it eroded what Nye calls America’s “soft power,” the ability to persuade other countries to support its policies because of the appeal of its ideals.

Exhibit A, he said, is Turkey, a longtime ally whose parliament refused to allow U.S. forces to cross Turkish territory en route to battle in Iraq.

Exhibit B is the decision of many key nations to delay or skimp on postwar assistance to U.S.-occupied Iraq.

Falling popularity makes it more difficult to get support for U.S. policies -- even when they might otherwise not be objectionable -- if to be seen as pro-American is a political “kiss of death,” Nye said.


The less international support the United States enjoys, the harder it is to carry out U.S. policies, noted Philip H. Gordon of the largely liberal Brookings Institution.

“The more others perceive that the United States ... doesn’t have the backing of allies, the more they think we might actually fail and cut and run,” he said.

“I think the administration felt that victory would bring its own legitimacy, [that] the allies would be faced with that victory and ultimately have to concede with their tail between their legs,” he said.

But that didn’t happen. The United States and its principal critics in Europe -- Germany and France, slowly reconciled -- because each needed the other.


“I think you’ve seen things over the past couple of months at least nodding in the direction of trying to win more international legitimacy and allied support for what we’re doing,” Gordon said.

One of those measures, ironically, has been a new U.S. push to give the United Nations a significant role in Iraq -- an idea administration officials dismissed only a year ago.

Last year, the administration “pointed out the flaws in a flawed international system” when it criticized the U.N.'s inability to act in Iraq, Feinstein said. But now, “the administration has gone back hat in hand to the U.N. to broker a solution [in the negotiations over a transitional government in Baghdad].... It shows that to the rest of the world, the U.N. is the ultimate conveyor of legitimacy.”