ASHINGTON — The response of the United States to 9/11 was to attack Afghanistan from the air and on the ground in an effort to destroy the Al Qaeda terror network and to kill or capture its guiding spirit, Osama bin Laden. This was partially successful. Al Qaeda was seriously damaged, but remains operational, and Bin Laden is still a force to be reckoned with. As a kind of bonus, the Taliban government was removed from power, opening the way to significant political and social reform. Most important, the US operated as a part of a multinational force backed by the United Nations and NATO. Costs, both political and economic, were shared. And so was responsibility for failure.
Much remains to be done in Afghanistan - especially in terms of rebuilding its economy, unifying the country, dealing with its ethnic divisions, and curbing the power of the warlords - but progress has been made. A president has been installed. Hamid Karzai was chosen not by the US, but by an international conference. It was a step toward establishing democracy, with elections and other supporting institutions still to come. It is a long way to the next step. Among a multitude of mistakes in the war on terror, perhaps the most serious was making the spread of democracy and freedom part of it. This linkage is an oxymoron in countries with no compatible political institutions or traditions and neither the money nor know-how to establish any.
Leaving the job in Afghanistan unfinished, the Bush administration became obsessed with the notion of overthrowing Iraq's President Saddam Hussein. When the UN Security Council refused to approve this action, President Bush threw a fit of impatient arrogance and went ahead with no ally other than Britain. The invasion of Iraq was a success in that Hussein was overthrown, but all the other reasons given by the administration to justify the invasion turned out to be without substance. There were no weapons of mass destruction. There were no significant ties to Al Qaeda. There was no threat to the US. All that was left was a bad dictator, and the administration is using his removal to justify the ensuing carnage. Worst of all, the international reputation of the US suffered damage that will take years to repair.
Mr. Bush is now edging back to recognizing the usefulness of the UN. The UN put together a new Iraqi government that the US is recognizing. But the US is still responsible for restoring public order and for rebuilding Iraq's destroyed infrastructure including electric power, water supply, sewers, and schools. This is a huge and expensive task that is not going well.
Meanwhile, with so much left to do in Iraq as well as in Afghanistan, additional nuclear crises are ticking away in Iran and North Korea. In both countries, a good deal of history is associated with current developments. In Iran, the US, through the CIA, engineered the overthrow of Prime Minister Muhammad Mossadeq in 1953 and the restoration of Shah Reza Pahlavi. The shah, in turn, was overthrown in 1979, in part because he had a particularly vicious intelligence/police service, but in part also because of his efforts to modernize the country. To this day, Iran is torn between modernizers and religious radicals. It is much in the US interest to encourage the modernizers, and this complicates the problems of nuclear policy.
The nuclear problem posed by North Korea is more serious. North Korea has broken agreements negotiated during the Clinton administration to cease nuclear development. It has withdrawn from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Its immediate neighbors - South Korea, Japan, China, Russia - are deeply concerned. Its ruler, Kim Jong Il, is at least as ruthless a dictator as Hussein.
Six-party talks involving North Korea and its neighbors, plus the US, concluded in Beijing last weekend with the parties agreeing to meet again in September. Under a proposal from the Bush administration, North Korea would agree to dismantle its nuclear programs. In return, Japan, China, Russia, and South Korea would resume shipments of fuel oil, and the US would "provisionally" agree not to invade North Korea. If North Korea violated its nuclear commitments, the fuel-oil shipments would cease and the US noninvasion guarantee would no longer be operative.
It should be noted that an agreement not to invade a country might be taken as a threat to invade if the other party broke the agreement. At the least, nullifying a noninvasion agreement removes a constraint on invasion. Those who remember the first Korean War shudder at the prospect of another one.
The moral of this story is that it is easier to get into a bear trap than to get out of one.
• Pat M. Holt is former chief of staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.