WASHINGTON — It was a decision that only President Bush had the power to make: At about 9 a.m. on March 19, 2003, in the Situation Room in the basement of the West Wing of the White House, he gave the "execute order" to begin Operation Iraqi Freedom, the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
Now, five years later, the consequences of that act will soon be beyond Bush's grasp. In 10 months, they'll land on the desk of his successor.
Thanks in part to the Iraq war, the next U.S. president — Republican or Democrat, black or white, man or woman — will take office with America's power, prestige and popularity in decline, according to bipartisan reports, polls and foreign observers.
"The winner of the 2008 elections will command U.S. forces still at war in Iraq, Afghanistan and against elusive terrorists with a deadly reach. The U.S. economy will remain burdened. ... America's moral leadership and decision-making competence will continue to be questioned," begins a study of foreign-policy choices for the next president, which a Georgetown University task force released last month.
"Restored respect will come only with fresh demonstrations of competence," the study said.
The numbers don't inspire confidence: Oil prices are at an all-time high, the dollar at new lows against the euro. Surveys find the United States' popularity and respect slipping in every part of the globe except Africa. A poll of 3,400 active and retired U.S. military officers by Foreign Policy magazine found that 88 percent agreed with the statement that "The war in Iraq has stretched the U.S. military dangerously thin."
Not all of the challenges facing Bush's successor can be blamed on the invasion and the failure of civilian leadership to plan for what would happen next in Iraq.
There are other forces at work, foreign-policy specialists say, including an increasingly globalized economy with new centers of wealth and power, China's rise and the growth of Islamic extremism.
The federal government's inept response to Hurricane Katrina dealt another blow, causing some prominent U.S. allies to question not America's intentions or its wisdom, but its competence, a prominent Arab ruler once told a top U.S. diplomat.
But because of the invasion of Iraq, "America's strategic position in the world has worsened," said Josef Joffe, the editor and publisher of Die Zeit, a German weekly that's sympathetic to United States. "From a coldly realist perspective, Iraq was the wrong war against the wrong foe at the wrong time."
The removal of Saddam Hussein strengthened Iran and "by entangling itself in an interminable civil war, the U.S. has lost power to spare," Joffe said.
Bush has never wavered in defending the most fateful choice of his presidency.
"The decision to remove Saddam Hussein was the right decision early in my presidency, it is the right decision at this point in my presidency and it will forever be the right decision," he told religious broadcasters earlier this month.
With improvements in security in much of Iraq over the last year, it still seems possible that the country could someday experience stability and even prosperity, thanks to its vast oil deposits.
"The prognosis in Iraq is potentially a lot more promising than it's been in a long time," said Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations, who was in Iraq in March and April 2007 as part of commander Gen. David Petraeus' staff.
But even under the best of circumstances, tens of thousands or more U.S. troops may be needed to stabilize Iraq throughout the next president's first term — and beyond.
That could limit the next president's options, even as he or she deals with more basic questions about how to restore the United States' standing in the world.
U.S. credibility also has been undermined, at home and abroad, by the administration's false claims about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction and ties to al Qaida prior to the Iraq war.
Several recent blue-ribbon panels recommended that the next president make major changes in how the United States deals with the world.
He or she, they said, should rely more on "soft" or "smart " power, such as diplomacy, promoting U.S. values and rebuilding alliances; use persuasion rather than coercion to achieve goals when possible; and invest more in non-military tools such as public diplomacy and foreign aid.
More provocatively, they advocate replacing the "war on terrorism" — which has colored virtually every aspect of Bush's foreign policy — as the focus of American security strategy. Instead, they say, the United States should be the leader in advancing peace, liberty and prosperity worldwide.
"Since 9/11, the United States has been exporting fear and anger rather than the more traditional values of hope and optimism. Suspicions of American power have run deep," Richard Armitage, deputy secretary of state under Bush, and Joseph Nye, a Pentagon official under President Clinton, wrote in a December report published by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"At the core of the problem is that America has made the war on terrorism the central component of its global engagement," they wrote.
That doesn't mean going soft on terrorists, said Chester Crocker, the co-chairman of the separate Georgetown University report, which also called for a new guiding principle for U.S. foreign policy.
But Crocker, an assistant secretary of state for Africa under President Reagan, said the war on terrorism has inflamed suspicions of U.S. motives, forced Washington to look the other way when its counterterrorism allies engage in bad behavior themselves, and led to an over-focus on the Middle East.
"Obviously, we can't ignore these hotspots," he said. But "if all we really care about is what's going on in the struggle within the Islamic world, we're not a world power anymore."
Many specialists also advise a more subtle, patient and less hectoring approach when it comes to advancing global democracy, which was one of the justifications Bush gave for invading Iraq.
Instead, the invasion "set it back in multiple senses," said Larry Diamond, a Stanford University expert on democracy promotion and author of the new book, "The Spirit of Democracy."
"Number one, it didn't go well," he said. U.S. efforts to spread democracy "were equated with insecurity, violence, refugees." Arab autocrats then used the specter of instability to argue against political liberalization.
"We have to approach the whole thing on fresh terms," Diamond said, with a strategy that "is incremental, that is more gradual, that doesn't over-reach."
Crafting a new foreign policy may not be easy, even for a new president making a fresh start.
"Europeans may delude themselves in thinking that their problem was with Bush, the president, and not with America, the superpower," said Joffe, the German publisher and academic. But the next president "will still be at the helm of the mightiest nation on earth, one that faces more threats and has more means to combat them than anybody else."
Said Crocker: "We are substantially leveraged or mortgaged by legacies" such as Iraq. "The next president has to figure out a way to dig out of this hole."
McClatchy Newspapers 2008