Letter from Washington: U.S. as lone superpower - a nuclear hit or missWASHINGTON After Libya gave up its nuclear weapons program in late 2003, President George W. Bush was emphatic about what had led Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi to sort out his relationship with Washington: The Libyan had looked down the large- caliber barrel of American power, seen the speed with which another Middle East strongman had been toppled and thought about his future.
"Before our coalition liberated Iraq, Libya was secretly pursuing nuclear weapons," Bush told soldiers at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, "Today, the leader of Libya has given up his chemical and nuclear weapons programs."
That speech was given in June 2005, more than a year ago. Is the converse true today?
Have Kim Jong Il and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the men at the center of the twin confrontations that promise to dominate the last years of Bush's presidency, looked at an America still pinned down in Iraq - its military stretched thin, its public weary of war - and concluded that this is their moment?
And if they have, is there much that Bush can do about it?
As America barrels toward this nuclear showdown on opposite sides of Asia, perhaps the best measure of America's power in these matters is its need for Russia and China to cooperate. Each of these Asian giants says it dislikes the prospect of a nuclear- armed North Korea, but each is also dead set against even hinting at the use of military force if diplomacy fails. Each is also highly ambivalent about stringent sanctions, which are at the core of the strategy America wants to pursue.
In Bush's first term, taking the measure of U.S. power seemed deceptively simple: The post-Sept. 11 mood fueled Bush's impatience with weak-kneed allies who did not see threats the way he saw them, and he thought nothing of driving around them.
What a contrast to Oct. 11, when Bush stepped into the White House's Rose Garden to talk chiefly about North Korea, and used the word "diplomacy" no fewer than 11 times.
He was repeatedly questioned about why he kept drawing new lines in the sand - lines the North Koreans and Iranians ignore - and he was asked whether he regretted missing what some people saw as a last opportunity to take out the North's nuclear fuel supplies at the start of 2003, after the country threw out United Nations inspectors and announced it was driving headlong for the bomb. He smiled, and cast his questioners as reach-for- the-gun unilateralists lacking faith in the art of peaceful persuasion.
But diplomacy works best from a position of strength. And even though the United States still boasts the world's largest military, most dynamic economy and a culture that the world snaps up, there is rising evidence that many countries - Russia and China among them - sniff a distinct change in the strategic atmosphere.
So, it seems, do the North Korean hermits and Iranian mullahs, and that may well explain why they are being defiant now. Behind the threats lies an understanding of U.S. vulnerabilities.
North Korea skillfully exploits an American soft point when it stirs fears about its potential to sow havoc among America's Northeast Asian allies and crucial trading partners - Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and China.
Such fears also help to make the Chinese and Russians skittish about provoking the North Koreans too much in the nuclear bargaining.
The Iranians, for their part, hold two cards: oil and a capacity to make things even worse in Iraq and beyond. And both countries know that America's partners, having been burned in the lead-up to the Iraq war, are not eager to give the United States another resolution at the United Nations that can be read as a predicate for military action.
"It's a double whammy," said James Steinberg, the dean of the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, who dealt with North Korea as deputy national security adviser under President Bill Clinton. The fact that America was willing to invade Iraq, he said, led North Korea and Iran to conclude that they needed nuclear weapons to deter America from putting them in its gun sights next. "That would have been the case if Iraq went well, or Iraq went badly," he said. "And now, by failing to subdue Iraq and move on, we've encouraged them to conclude that there is little risk to them if they just speed forward into nuclear breakout."
Bush's top aides counter that such explanations are simplistic - and tinged with election-year self-interest. No matter how popular Iraq-messed- it-up arguments are now, they add, reality is more complicated.
The Bush administration says diplomacy had run its course in Iraq, but has not yet in Korea.
For sure, ugly eruptions with North Korea date back a long way. The Korean War started in 1950, when the North mistakenly thought Washington would not fight back. And remember the Pueblo, the U.S. spy ship captured in 1968? It is now a monument to "U.S. imperial aggression forces," bobbing on a river in Pyongyang.
Similarly, U.S. efforts to influence Iran - overtly and covertly - have run off the rails since the days of the shah. And, of course, there is a temptation to read every act of defiance only as a slap at or threat to America, rather than also as a play by Kim or Ahmadinejad to home audiences.
Still, it is hard to remember a moment when the world's sole superpower seemed less positioned to manage a fractured world. It is not only that American hard power is tied up in Baghdad and Kabul; Bush has acknowledged that soft power - the ability to lead because you are admired - is suffering, too. Abu Ghraib "kind of eased us off the moral high ground," he volunteered at the news conference the other day.
Bush's approach in the nuclear conundrum has been to act a bit like a major investor: gather partners like China with the most at stake in solving specific problems and have them do the management - with plenty of American oversight. But like manufacturers across America, Bush has discovered outsourcing has its frustrations: It's hard to maintain quality control.
In short, being a sole superpower is not what it was cracked up to be 17 years ago. Back then, you could measure a nation's power in throw- weights. Now, it is the amount of weight you can throw around. For the next two years, Bush may have to borrow some.