Three years ago US President George W. Bush toured Asia just months after the fall of Baghdad, and declared that "every nation in Asia and across the world now faces a choice."
In a series of high-energy stops across the Pacific, he urged leaders to pour money and manpower into rebuilding Iraq. In private meetings, he expressed confidence that Iraq would have a "demonstration effect" on states like North Korea and Iran, and urged Asian leaders to reshape the world with the US.
Today, that moment appears as one of the high points of US power in Bush's tenure. On the five-day tour of Singapore, Vietnam and Indonesia that Bush completed with a visit here to the Pacific Command at Pearl Harbor on Tuesday, the sweep of the president's agenda was diminished, his initiatives far more modest, his rallying calls for fighting terrorism more muted.
The question is why. Perhaps it was an example of what Graham Fuller, a former vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council, described recently as "superpower fatigue" -- a sense that Washington is overstretched, and that other nations sense the opening that creates for them.
As Iraq grew ever more violent and complicated, Fuller wrote in the latest issue of The National Interest, "diverse countries have deployed a multiplicity of strategies and tactics designed to weaken, divert, alter, complicate, limit, delay or block the Bush agenda through death by a thousand cuts."
But there are other explanations, including a belated awakening within the Bush administration that the agenda of its Asian allies is very different from Washington's. Iraq is rarely in the headlines in the countries Bush visited.
Yet the resentment that has built up over the years, as Bush pressed his security and counterterrorism agenda ahead of the Asian desire to find ways to spur economic growth, are the subject of regular commentary.
"The Asians got tired of all this homework, and began to organize their own summit, one that excluded the United States, to return to the trade issues they view as so central," said Michael Green, who left the administration late last year after running the Asia side of the National Security Council.
"I think some in the administration realized we were sounding a little shrill on terrorism -- because there has been a lot of quiet cooperation in Asia -- and it was time to get the president back to the trade agenda," he said.
So instead of pressing the hunt for al-Qaeda affiliates in Indonesia and terror groups like Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines, this time Bush talked about the distant goal of creating a free trade area in the Pacific.
The talk was motivated partly by a desire to avoid US exclusion. Bush's proposal for a sprawling free-trade area would compete with calls in Asia for a regional one that would exclude non-Asian countries. But it was less of an initiative than a long-range vision -- like president Bill Clinton's call for a "free trade area of the Americas" in the early 1990s. Both are unlikely to happen for years, if ever.
"It's a recognition that in Asia, economics is where the game is -- with China, and of course with India and others -- and in that arena, the president has been in deep kimchee," said James Lilley, who served as US ambassador to China and South Korea, and is close to Bush's father.
Bush's aides, not surprisingly, deny that the administration's troubles in Iraq are limiting his influence in places like Southeast Asia. Such explanations, they argue, are creations of the media, seeking a storyline of presidential decline after the Republican defeat in the midterm elections.
Yet it was striking that a president who came to office with hopes of dominating the agenda in Asia felt the need on this trip to make the case that the US could be counted on to stay around.
"America will remain engaged in Asia, because our interests depend on the expansion of freedom and opportunity in this region," he said in a speech in Singapore.
In what seemed to be a message directed at his own country, to a Congress he will no longer control come January, he warned against growing isolationist tendencies that would cede US influence. Left unsaid was the obvious -- that if the US retreats, China, India and others will gain.
The true test may come in the next few months, as Bush manages the diplomacy over North Korea. On previous trips to Asia, he has declared the world could not "tolerate" a nuclear North Korea. Last month, the North Koreans set off their first nuclear test, leaving no doubt that they have a working weapon, even if it is one that did not work very well.
The backroom diplomacy of this trip was centered on joining forces with China and others to lure or compel the North Koreans to make a symbolic step toward disarmament, probably by dismantling key elements of its nuclear program. But the North Koreans know that the US' military is stretched to the limit already, and that, unlike three years ago, there is little reason to fear that Washington's demands may be backed up by force.
And the rest of Asia, while interested in seeing the North Korean issue resolved, is even more interested in stability. For them, disarmament Bush-style is a little too provocative.
"You go to a meeting in Asia these days, and these issues never come up," said David Rothkopf, a former Commerce Department official who wrote a definitive history of the National Security Council. "The Asians think that the world is a really great place right now, and they are making progress at a speed never thought possible before. And Bush's agenda, it just doesn't scan," he said.
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