Foreign 'crises' show limits of US power

From Liberia to Iraq, US is seeking global help, moving away from go-it-alone model.

After months of looking to its own resources for dealing with international challenges, the US this summer is turning more to the rest of the world - though perhaps out of pragmatism rather than conviction. From Iraq to Liberia to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the United States is confronting the limits of superpowerdom. And a world that just months ago was most fearful of a US "going it alone" is being called on increasingly to share in the burdens of intervention.

On Iraq, the US is stepping up efforts to enlist foreign-troop - and financial - contributions to help police and underwrite the country's costly reconstruction. With a major donors' conference set for October, US officials are seeking to warm the world toward participating in Iraq.

For Liberia, President Bush has dispatched three ships of about 2,500 marines to the Liberian coast, to arrive as soon as the end of this week. Although their exact assignment remains unclear, the troops are expected to give logistical support to West African peacekeepers, primarily from Nigeria.

As Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's White House visit Tuesday underscored, Mr. Bush is pursuing a deepening personal commitment to husband the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. But in meeting both Mr. Sharon and Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, who called at the White House last week, Bush demonstrated that while the US can push the two sides toward compromise, it alone can do little to require a settlement.

Evolving approach

"This administration's approach to the world is 'unilateral if we can and multilateral if we must' and what's happening now is a situation where they're deciding we 'must,' " says Lawrence Korb, a Reagan administration official now with the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

In Iraq, "They would have liked to be able to handle it without worrying about the United Nations and the rest of the world, but when you need more troops and money to secure things than you planned on, you realize you're going to need help," adds Mr. Korb.

The return of a multilateral tilt signifies a correction after the Iraq war, according to some analysts. These observers also say it reveals how the US has lost ground in some central goals, and is now playing catch-up. One of those buffeted priorities is the international war on terrorism.

"A year ago, the administration had done a pretty good job especially on the foreign-policy side of the war on terrorism: There was a lot of international support and focus on Al Qaeda," says Stephen Walt, an international-relations expert at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. "But they took a sharp right turn towards Baghdad, and that has made it more difficult to get cooperation on terrorism." He adds, "I don't see any signs the other countries we are concerned about are adjusting their policies."

If anything, Mr. Walt says, countries such as Iran and North Korea may feel less threatened now than before the US occupation of Iraq. "You can't threaten anything like regime change if your military is tied down in Iraq," he says.

Any shift back to a multilateralist path may not sit well with all sectors of the Bush administration, but there are growing signs that more burden-sharing - especially in terms of troop deployment in Iraq - is what the American public wants.

A poll last week by the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland found that 7 out of every 10 Americans support putting Iraq's reconstruction under the UN. Support for broader involvement is especially strong if it would mean more foreigners could replace US troops or reduce their stay.

Cautious engagement

With only tepid world support for US postwar operations in Iraq, and with an election year coming up, the White House will be much less likely to embark on any foreign operations lacking international backing, some observers say. "The Bush administration and Republican Party more broadly will certainly think twice before engaging in anything that risks ending up as difficult as the postwar scenario has been," says Charles Kupchan, an expert in US intervention at Georgetown University in Washington.

But drumming up international involvement in Iraq is proving anything but a cakewalk - which may explain why the Bush administration is contemplating new moves to build that support.

The State Department Tuesday said that 30 countries so far have signed on to help in policing and other peacekeeping operations in Iraq. But spokesman Richard Boucher also acknowledged that the US will pay some of the developing countries on the list - which includes Eastern European and Central American countries - for some aspects of involvement.

For example, the Pentagon announced that the US will pay more than $200 million for a 9,000-strong peacekeeping division under Polish command to be on the ground in Iraq by September.

Still, Pentagon troop rotation plans call for 50,000 foreign peacekeeping troops to be in Iraq by the end of the year, something Korb says can't happen without a "wider opening" to the world.

One possibility is a return to the UN to seek another resolution broadening the UN mandate in Iraq - something hinted at by Secretary of State Colin Powell.

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