WASHINGTON—Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, President Bush's foreign policy has been driven by blunt talk, a willingness to threaten or use military force, and a belief that American power can reorder the world.
"We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality," a White House aide famously told journalist-author Ron Suskind in 2002.
Reality has bitten back.
From the corpse-strewn streets of Baghdad to Iran's uranium-enrichment plants, from Israel's escalating conflicts in Gaza and Lebanon to North Korean missile launch pads, the White House faces developments that appear to be getting worse for U.S. interests.
Virtually every president faces a plethora of global crises, sometimes simultaneously. What's new is that the United States' ability to influence events has shrunk, largely because U.S. troops and treasure remain mired in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Iraq war has diminished foreign confidence in American leadership, according to foreign policy experts and some U.S. officials.
In Iraq and to some extent Afghanistan, "events have revealed that our military superiority is not as great as we originally imagined. We are tapped out," said Andrew Bacevich, a Boston University international relations professor and West Point graduate.
That has implications for dealing with challenges such as Iran's suspected drive for nuclear weapons and North Korea's recent test launch of missiles in defiance of world opinion, Bacevich and others said.
"We're really not in a position to dictate to others," Bacevich said, a trend that he noted isn't lost on America's adversaries.
Making a virtue of necessity, Bush has shelved tough talk when it comes to dealing with Iran and North Korea—both are members of what he called the "axis of evil" —and has instead emphasized patient diplomacy.
The president, who showed little patience for either diplomacy or the United Nations before the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, said after the North Korean missile launches: "One way to send a message is through the United Nations. ... Diplomacy takes a while, particularly when you're dealing with a variety of partners."
But Bush's gradual ditching of tough talk and moral clarity in his foreign policy has left his conservative supporters angry and frustrated.
"I don't know what's happened. ... Is it Iraq? Is it the mid-term elections? Is it weariness? Is it (the influence of Secretary of State Condoleezza) Rice?" said Danielle Pletka, a vice president of the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
"Clearly, there's been a sea-change in our foreign policy."
But it's not clear that diplomacy is working, either.
On Wednesday, Rice and the foreign ministers of China, France, Germany, Great Britain and Russia agreed to bring Iran's nuclear program back to the U.N. Security Council after Tehran refused to give a clear answer to a six-week old international peace proposal.
But it remains far from clear that Russia, which has economic and political interests in Iran, will ever agree to tough sanctions on Iran, especially after it's done hosting this weekend's economic summit in St. Petersburg.
With North Korea, Washington is forced to rely on China, the only nation with any real influence on Pyongyang. But China has threatened to block a U.N. Security Council resolution that would condemn North Korea's missile tests and curb transfers of missiles and missile-related technology to it. Beijing is counseling quiet diplomacy instead.
Bush's recent emphasis on diplomacy is "all fine. But there's no reason to believe any of these diplomatic measures will be successful," said Gary Samore, a nonproliferation expert who worked in the Clinton White House and is now a vice president of the MacArthur Foundation.
Samore, who met recently with a group of Iranians, said they told him that the leadership in Tehran is convinced that the Bush administration cannot attack them. "The Iranians are feeling very protected from U.S. military action" by what has happened in Iraq, he said.
"The administration is seen as so deeply wounded by Iraq and by the fading presidency, that a lot of people (in other capitals) are thinking about the next presidency."
Bush, Rice and other top administration spokesmen argue that the United States is working effectively with other nations to deal with common threats. The European Union, Russia and China have a common interest in preventing a nuclear-armed Iran and reining in North Korea, they say.
While acknowledging serious problems in Iraq, Rice and others predict the country will eventually get on the right path.
One senior State Department official said Rice and her State Department team privately appear to understand the U.S. predicament.
"But what are they going to do? They're going to keep on keeping on," said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity to avoid retribution. "It's not the hand they were dealt. To some extent, it's the hand they dealt themselves."
Samore and other analysts said Bush would have had a much stronger hand if he'd pursued diplomacy earlier—for example, immediately after the Iraq invasion, when Iran, fearing it would be next, quietly proposed talks on a broad range of issues.
But after Saddam Hussein was toppled, Bush and his aides were emboldened, thinking they saw the beginning of a democratic wave that would transform the Arab Middle East.
After an initial outpouring of popular movements in Egypt, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories in early 2005, that hope, too, has been dashed.
The terrorist group Hamas won January 2006 elections in the Palestinian territories. The United States refuses to deal with Hamas, effectively sidelining Washington from a role in Middle East peace negotiations.
Israel, which has pursued its own muscular policies, now finds itself fighting a two-front war against Hamas in Gaza and the Iranian-backed Hezbollah militia along its northern border in Lebanon.
In Iraq, brutal sectarian violence has resurged, with the death toll in the last three days since Wednesday passing 100. U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad acknowledged this week that new Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki's plan to pacify Baghdad hasn't achieved its goals. But Iraq isn't in a civil war, he said.