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Overseas Tensions Force Bush to Change Direction

"It's starting to overstrain the system," said Pascual, now vice president of the Brookings Institution. "You've got a very small team who are really at the core of dealing with all of these issues. In my view, you can start to see some mistakes being made."

With the Middle East at the forefront, the Iran issue has bogged down again at the U.N. Security Council as Russia resists a tough resolution threatening sanctions, even though in the view of U.S. officials it had agreed to that approach at a meeting in Paris shortly before the Middle East conflict erupted. Likewise, North Korea has vanished from the radar screen, just weeks after its provocative missile tests.

Instead of leading the coalition, then, Bush is explaining his position to allies, reviving memories of his first-term doctrinal differences. "When it looks like we're the odd man out, it tends to cement certain images," said Dennis Ross, a Middle East negotiator under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. "The U.S. is actually doing the right thing. But are we seen as being active enough in terms of putting together a constructive plan?"

Ross said Bush could use the situation to bolster his case about the threat of a nuclear Iran, given its ties to Hezbollah. "Iran acts pretty reckless when they don't have a nuclear shield. How would they act if they did have a nuclear shield?" he said.

At home, political strategists said, Bush faces the perception that he is presiding over one brushfire after another, hindered in his efforts to advance a positive agenda at a time when Republican control of Congress appears at risk. His most prominent domestic priority of the year, a comprehensive immigration plan, already seemed stalled until after the elections. The escalation of killing in Iraq may have unraveled any chance of major U.S. troop withdrawals before the elections. And the conversation is now dominated by rockets flying in and out of southern Lebanon.

"It significantly contributes to the general sense that they don't have a formula for governing and for leading," said Steve Ricchetti, who was deputy White House chief of staff under Clinton. "There's nothing more important to a president than the public sensing that he has a vision and the ability to lead. And I think that has diminished dramatically for them and it presents an enormous political problem."

Republican candidates who are already nervous about a commander in chief with approval ratings stuck in the 30s have grown wary of the impact of the latest fighting.

"It may not only intrude in the midterm elections, it could envelop them," said V. Lance Tarrance Jr., a prominent Republican consultant. On the one hand, he said, it could give Bush a chance "to demonstrate presidential leadership," and voters are often reluctant to shift leadership in a moment of crisis. On the other hand, he said, "it could force a large-scale regional conflict that increases" the vote against incumbents "to such an extent that people worry about the country."

The White House sees the risk but is banking, in part, on the Democrats' history of not capitalizing on such moments. Bush advisers point to 2004, when the situation in Iraq appeared particularly dire, and yet the president won reelection and Republicans retained both houses of Congress.

Moreover, they note, Bush has three months to paint the Middle East conflict in terms of his vision of the fight against terrorism.

"It may take a while to settle out," said the senior Bush official. "Whether it happens before the election or not, I don't know."

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