WASHINGTON -- Emerging from its first test as a solo superpower, the United States is a frustrated giant, still unable to turn its victory over Iraq into enduring stability and unwilling to impose its values on a resistant Middle East.
The prospect of face-to-face Arab-Israeli talks now seems tantalizingly close, a result of relentless U.S. diplomacy since the Persian Gulf war ended. But the prospect of substantive accomplishment lies far down the road in a process that has been fraught with frustration and suspicion.
Iraq, meanwhile, continues to cast a threatening shadow over the region.
Its acceptance of a United Nations cease-fire has been shown to be less a surrender than a tactical maneuver. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein used it to cement his control after brutally crushing Kurdish and Shiite Muslim rebels, and he now flaunts his defiance.
Mr. Hussein's refusal to come clean on the extent of his covert $5-billion-to-$10-billion nuclear-weapons program and his capability for biological warfare has provoked threats of renewed bombing by the United States.
Arrangements for long-term security in the Persian Gulf region remain unsettled and rely more on U.S. military power, prepositioned equipment and arms sales than on regional cooperation.
Arms control at best will amount to restraint on the major powers' sales of advanced weaponry, not a reduction in the military forces of the already heavily militarized region, where five countries possess more main battle tanks than Britain or France.
Elimination of weapons of mass destruction in a region with one nuclear power (Israel), two with the same aim (Iraq and Iran), and chemical weapons in nearly every major country will depend on how far the difficult peace process gets.
Little is being done to address the huge gap between the region's rich and poor, which is widely considered a source of further conflict. Democracy remains the exception in Middle East politics. Human rights are widely abused.
It wasn't supposed to happen this way.
President Bush's main war aims were well defined: reversal of Iraq's aggression; destruction of its nuclear, biological and chemical weapons capability; restoration of Kuwait's al-Sabah royal family; and ensuring a free flow of oil.
But administration rhetoric went well beyond these cut-and-dried goals to tap a wellspring of hope that a better world would emerge.
"We have before us the opportunity to forge for ourselves and for future generations a new world order, a world where the rule of law, not the law of the jungle, governs the conduct of nations," Mr. Bush said in a speech Jan. 16 after launching the air war against Iraq.
On Feb. 6, midway through the war, Secretary of State James A.Baker III spelled out four challenges of postwar diplomacy: regional security, control of conventional arms and weapons of mass destruction, Arab-Israeli peace, and economic cooperation.
A defeated Iraq, with Mr. Hussein ousted, would be included again in the region's balance of power, Mr. Baker suggested, as would Iran.
Mr. Bush went further when he declared the war over March 6.
"Now, the challenge is to reach higher, to foster economic freedom and prosperity for all the people of the region," he said. Quoting Winston Churchill, he described a world in which "the principles of justice and fair play protect the weak against the strong . . . a world where the United Nations, freed from Cold War stalemate, is poised to fulfill the historic vision of its founders; a world in which freedom and human rights find a home among all nations."
Such lofty goals seemed possible as the fighting ended with the U.S.-led military coalition the unchallenged force in the region. The Soviet Union, already a diminished presence, had abandoned its patronage of the region's radical elements and given political support to the coalition when it counted.
Persian Gulf Arabs led by Saudi Arabia, overcoming decades of resistance, had quietly embraced the presence of hundreds of thousands of U.S. and other Western forces. Israel and anti-Iraqi Arabs were at least symbolically united against a common foe.
Four months later, the coalition -- and its underpinning of U.S.-Soviet cooperation -- remains intact. But the United States has been reluctant to use the clout that its victory provided.
"If you look at what the administration has said they were going to accomplish or want to accomplish and what we have accomplished, there's quite a gap," said Representative Lee H. Hamilton, D-Ind., chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Middle East subcommittee. And on the question of democracy, he said, "we just folded up our hands and went away."
Far from having licked the Vietnam syndrome, the United States demonstrated through its quick exit from the battlefield -- without supplanting the Iraqi government -- and its failure to assist Kurdish and Shiite rebels that the syndrome was alive and well, said William Quandt, a Middle East expert at the Brookings Institution.