WASHINGTON — Ever since the fall of the Soviet Union, the United States has been looking for a foreign policy to replace the cold war. On Sept. 11, 2001, President Bush found a meaningful one that American people endorsed overwhelmingly and enthusiastically. So with some help, mainly from NATO countries, the US overthrew a fanatic Muslim government in Afghanistan. It remains unclear what the US did to the Al Qaeda terrorists behind the strikes against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
From the beginning, Mr. Bush made it clear that the war on terror extended wherever terror showed itself or found sanctuary. This included the Philippines, Indonesia, and Yemen, among others. He grouped Iraq, Iran, and North Korea in an "axis of evil" and vowed to produce a regime change in Iraq, something his father left undone at the end of the Persian Gulf War in 1991. He professes to be open-minded about method, but his language is remarkably bellicose.
This is a good way to get overextended. Consider the example of Vietnam.
The UN Security Council voted unanimously to resume its search for weapons of mass destruction - nuclear, radiological, chemical, biological - in Iraq. The government of Saddam Hussein, which four years ago expelled inspectors, welcomed them back. The first week of inspections - likely to be a long process - has passed largely uneventfully. At the same time, the Bush administration has begun to line up allies for an invasion. This may be only psychological pressure on Hussein; it may be military preparation; it may be both.
In one speech or interview after another, the president has changed his mind or contradicted himself. He campaigned for an end to nation-building, but is now rebuilding in Afghanistan and promises more in Iraq where we are not even at war yet. He sees war in ideological as well as geopolitical terms; war has a humanitarian as well as a military side. That is why humanitarian aid accompanies destruction.
He wants to be seen as a liberator as well as a conqueror. In September, Bush in effect told the UN to help the US against Iraq or it would do it alone. Later, preceding the Security Council vote, he was more conciliatory.
There are disagreements of varying degrees between the president, the vice president, State and Defense departments, the national security adviser, and Joint Chiefs of Staff. It will require a high degree of loyalty and self-discipline to get through this war on terror without a major rift (as between the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and President Johnson over Vietnam) or resignation (as Secretary of State Cyrus Vance over the Iran hostage rescue attempt).
Reports are coming from civilians in the Pentagon of new military technology so awesome it almost makes it tempting to go to war on the way to establishing a worldwide military empire. Possibly encouraged by how easy it sounds, Bush even asserts the right to act preemptively. This is something the US was careful to avoid even during the cold war, when the danger was greater. But suppose this rosy vision turns out to be mistaken. A new book, "The End of the American Era" by Charles A. Kupchan, a Georgetown University international relations professor, argues that the challenge to the US will come not from Islam or China, but from Europe. And it will be economic. This recalls the hullaballoo in Europe a generation ago caused by the French book "Le Défi Americain" (The American Challenge) by Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber, making the same prediction in reverse - that a threat to Europe came from US economic and technological development.
In considering US policy with respect to how far to carry the war on terrorism, Bush might well consider the guidepost of one of his predecessors. In an 1821 Fourth of July speech, John Quincy Adams, then secretary of state, said: "Whenever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall by unfurled, there will be America's heart.... But she does not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own."
At least Adams, who became president, did not overextend himself as did several of his successors. George W. Bush is in danger of adding his name to the list.
• Pat M. Holt is former chief of staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.