At the height of the war in Afghanistan, American influence around the globe looked unquestioned and ascendant. The nation's standing was bolstered by the world's near-universal rejection of the terrorism used against Americans, and by the clarity of how and why the US would respond.
But a lack of clarity on more recent events in two regions of keen interest to the United States the Middle East and Latin America have dealt a blow to the clout and prestige of the United States.
The lost luster could well affect America's diplomacy and maneuverability in the international arena. How the Bush administration responds will influence not just America's image but such tangible goals as continued successes in the war on terror.
The response will also provide clues about which ideological camps are up in the White House and which are down. Some observers see recent muddled actions as a sign of the resurgence of ideological divides and personality conflicts that have coursed through the administration since before the war in Afghanistan.
"The Bush administration has watered down policies that began from a point of view of moral clarity," says Andrew Bacevich, director of the Center for International Relations at Boston University. He cites "mixed messages" the US is sending in the Middle East and Latin America, in the latter case referring to the US response to the attempted coup earlier this month in Venezuela.
"We're seeing the old rifts that were driven underground last fall reasserting themselves," he says. "But the basic fault lines are the same." Those divisions are over going it alone versus international cooperation, and over pursuing strategic interests versus upholding principles.
Joseph Biden, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also says that "differences of opinion within the administration" about how to pursue the war on terrorism after Afghanistan differences primarily focused on Iraq are now extending to other policies and areas. The differing views have pitted the Pentagon against the State Department, says the Delaware Democrat.
At a personality level, some say, the contrasts are most pronounced between Secretary of State Colin Powell and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz. Mr. Wolfowitz's appearance last week at a pro-Israel rally in Washington, just as Mr. Powell was in the Mideast trying to play the even-handed go-between, raised some eyebrows here and around the world.
In the Middle East, the US is sending mixed signals following Secretary Powell's 10-day mission, during which he was unable to secure either a cease-fire or a rapid move to talks on political issues.
President Bush appears to be continuing a gradual tilt favoring Israel a move observers say reflects the thinking of some White House aides and key Republican intellectuals. The perceived bias will feed Arab suspicions that the US secretly approved Israel's recent military incursions into Palestinian lands all along.
On Thursday, Mr. Bush referred to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as a "man of peace," after Mr. Sharon snubbed Bush's demand two weeks ago to withdraw Israeli troops from Palestinian towns "without delay." The president now paints Sharon's phased and partial withdrawal as positive reflecting the thinking of advisers from the Pentagon and around Vice President Dick Cheney that Sharon is fighting terrorism and should not be restricted from doing what the US is doing.
Despite that, the president in recent days has been meeting or talking by phone with moderate Arab leaders, leading up to a visit this week with Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah at Bush's Texas ranch. And Bush brushed aside calls, made by some White House aides before Powell's trip, to stop dealing with Yasser Arafat. The president appears to have heeded advice from Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice that, like it or not, Palestinian Authority president Arafat is who Palestinians chose as their leader, and he cannot be ignored.
As for the highly questioned US response to the recent failed coup in Venezuela, observers say the US came out looking pro-coup instead of prodemocracy. And they say no amount of White House and State Department explanation will quickly cover the impression that the US sided with the forces behind the coup because it targeted a leader the US has problems with, President Hugo Chavez. (The first US response, which came while Powell was in the Mideast, blamed Mr. Chavez for his own downfall while not questioning the coup.)
"It will be a while before people in Latin America get over this one, because it tends to confirm their impressions of what US foreign policy is really about," says Bacevich. "We say we have a foreign policy based on values chief among them the rule of law and principles of democracy but this looks like what really comes first are our interests."
Venezuela, like the Mideast, may reflect White House policy divisions. "Debate over how to handle Chavez was already there, but now a huge split has opened up over this among Republican internationalists," says John Sweeney, Latin America analyst with Stratfor.com in Austin, Texas. The divide, he says, is now between consensus-building and keeping a tough line on Chavez.
In distancing itself from coup supporters, the US has "cut off" some prodemocracy anti-Chavez groups, Mr. Sweeney says, "and they're twisting in the wind."
All this, he says, deals a "serious blow to US standing."