Analysis

A Driven President Faces a World of Crises

In Seoul, passengers on a subway train watch TV screens broadcasting North Korea's test launches.
In Seoul, passengers on a subway train watch TV screens broadcasting North Korea's test launches. (By Ahn Young-joon -- Associated Press)

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By Michael Abramowitz and Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, July 6, 2006

From deteriorating security in Afghanistan and Somalia to mayhem in the Middle East, confrontation with Iran and eroding relations with Russia, the White House suddenly sees crisis in every direction.

North Korea's long-range missile test Tuesday, although unsuccessful, was another reminder of the bleak foreign policy landscape that faces President Bush even outside of Iraq. Few foreign policy experts foresee the reclusive Stalinist state giving up the nuclear weapons it appears to have acquired, making it another in a long list of world problems that threaten to cloud the closing years of the Bush administration, according to foreign policy experts in both parties.

"I am hard-pressed to think of any other moment in modern times where there have been so many challenges facing this country simultaneously," said Richard N. Haass, a former senior Bush administration official who heads the Council on Foreign Relations. "The danger is that Mr. Bush will hand over a White House to a successor that will face a far messier world, with far fewer resources left to cope with it."

White House officials emphatically reject such pessimism, and yesterday leading figures in both parties saw some diplomatic opportunity for the United States out of the missile failure. But the events on the Korean Peninsula underscored how the administration has lost the initiative it once possessed on foreign policy in the aftermath of the Iraq invasion, leaving at risk the central Bush aspiration of democracy-building around the world.

They also showed how the huge commitment of resources and time on Iraq -- and the attendant falloff in international support for the United States -- has limited the administration's flexibility in handling new world crises. "This is a distracted government that has to take care of too many things at the same time and has been consumed by the war on Iraq," said Moisés Naím, editor of Foreign Policy magazine.

National security adviser Stephen J. Hadley said in an interview yesterday that such criticism is misplaced, adding that victory in Iraq is crucial to success in fighting terrorists and in creating a new democracy that could serve as a beacon to other Middle Eastern countries. "Is it a major investment? Yes," he said. "The stakes are high [in Iraq], but we think the rewards are commensurate to the effort, and the consequences of lack of success are sobering."

Hadley agreed that there are "a lot of issues in motion right now" on the international front. "In some sense, it was destined to be, because we have a president that wants to take on the big issues and see if he could solve them on his watch."

Even in the context of a post-Sept. 11, 2001, world, the array of tough, seemingly intractable foreign problems is spreading. Renewed violence has expanded to major cities throughout Afghanistan, as Afghan rebels adopt tactics of Iraqi insurgents and as President Hamid Karzai's popularity has plummeted. Iran is balking at demands to come clean or compromise on its nuclear program, despite new U.S. and European incentives. Palestinians launched longer-range missiles into Israel, while Israel has authorized its army to invade part of northern Gaza.

Meanwhile, an Islamist militia in Somalia seized control of the capital, Mogadishu. Mexico's future is uncertain after a close and disputed presidential election. And yesterday, the price of oil hit a new high of $75.19 a barrel.

Concern about such developments is cutting across the normal fault lines in American politics, with critiques being expressed by conservative realists such as Haass and liberal internationalists such as former secretary of state Madeleine K. Albright. Albright said yesterday that the United States now faces the "perfect storm" in foreign policy. "The U.S. is not as unilateral as it is uni-dimensional," she said in an interview. "We have not been paying attention to a lot of these issues. . . . Afghanistan is out of control because not enough attention was paid to it."

Even neoconservative hawks who have been generally supportive of the administration on Iraq and other issues said they are worried about the direction of American foreign policy, and hope for a muscular response from the Bush administration toward the latest North Korean provocation.

"North Korea is firing missiles. Iran is going nuclear. Somalia is controlled by radical Islamists. Iraq isn't getting better, and Afghanistan is getting worse," said William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard and a leading conservative commentator. "I give the president a lot of credit for hanging tough on Iraq. But I am worried that it has made them too passive in confronting the other threats."

Senior administration officials said the United States is in a much stronger diplomatic position than it has been in the past in dealing with adversaries such as North Korea and Iran. On both fronts, the administration has engaged in much more aggressive multilateral diplomacy than it did in Bush's first term, and that effort could still bear fruit, they said.

Hadley predicted the results of aggressive diplomacy would be seen in the next few days with a strong condemnation of North Korea at the United Nations. "We saw this coming. We worked the diplomacy," he said. "North Korea went ahead, and in so doing didn't defy [only] us but defied the entire international community."

Some outside experts agreed that Tuesday's seven missile launches could help the administration make the case to China to work harder to rein in Pyongyang. "This has to have gotten China's attention," said Rep. Jane Harman (Calif.), the senior Democrat on the House intelligence committee. "What some may see as a series of setbacks, I see as a series of opportunities," she said.

Both Democrats and Republicans insisted that the United States can deal with multiple crises, but some questioned how effectively.

"Every situation makes it more difficult to deal with another," said Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser in the Carter administration. "It's like a juggler. You have to keep all the balls going. Any one of them that is out of trajectory threatens all the others."


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