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.

"We are a reluctant superpower. We didn't want a Pax Americana," he said.

Mr. Bush's refusal to be sucked into a potential "quagmire" reflected historical reality, Mr. Quandt said. "Every outside power has been frustrated in trying to set the Mideast right," with the possible exception of the Ottoman Turks, he said.

Rather than press ahead with the war until the Iraqi threat to the region was eliminated, the United States opted for a meticulously drawn U.N. cease-fire resolution designed to accomplish the same goal through economic pressure.

One result is that Mr. Hussein remains in power, defying Bush administration hopes that his own devastated military would oust him.

"His continuing presence will cause a sense of unease among rulers of surrounding territory," said Sen. Richard G. Lugar, R-Ind., who has argued for a year that the Iraqi dictator must be ousted.

Another result is that the United States is having to maintain a rapid-response force in Turkey to guard against a renewed Iraqi crackdown.

A third result is having to endure Mr. Hussein's continued defiance of the United Nations, forcing successive teams of international inspectors to play a cat-and-mouse game to track down Iraq's nuclear-weapons capability.

The inspection imbroglio has presented an additional financial problem: Nations that shelled out billions of dollars to back the war effort are now reluctant to underwrite the costs of beefed-up inspections.

But perhaps the overriding result of the U.S. actions is an uncertain regional balance of power. For years, the United States had looked to Iraq to check Iran's ambition to dominate the Persian Gulf. Now Iraq can't be trusted with such a role.

And the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council, the gulf states' mutualdefense organization, has kept Iran out of the defense structure despite improved diplomatic ties with that non-Arab state. Iran's outsider status keeps alive the possibility that it could foment restiveness among Shiites in Iraq and elsewhere in the region even as Kurds in northern Iraq keep pressing for autonomy.

With its regional security goals undercut, the Bush administration put much of its postwar effort into a determined quest for a productive Arab-Israeli peace process. But of its gulf war allies, only Egypt -- heavily reliant on U.S. aid for its desperate economy and exploding population -- proved an enthusiastic partner.

Saudi Arabia initially seemed to greet U.S. plans with enthusiasm but soon turned inward, belatedly agreeing to send a Gulf Cooperation Council observer to a peace conference and join in multilateral talks on such regional problems as water, arms control and the environment.

The Saudis helped add some momentum to Mr. Baker's latest mission to the Middle East when they offered to abandon the Arab boycott of Israel in exchange for a halt to Israeli settlements in the occupied territories, an offer the Israelis predictably rejected.

The pivotal peace-process role thus fell to Syrian President Hafez el Assad, the regional leader Israelis distrust at least as much as they do Saddam Hussein.

Mr. Assad, perhaps the most clever Arab leader, eventually concluded that his leadership of the "rejectionist" Arab camp offered less long-term potential than cooperation with the West.

"His great patron [the Soviet Union] is not worth much. Americans and Europeans are the ones that count. He can't count on his military option" against Israel, Mr. Quandt said.

Absorbing a lesson from the late Egyptian leader Anwar el Sadat, Mr. Assad has determined that if there is to be a peace process, Syria will be "crucial to each step," Mr. Quandt said.

Mr. Assad already has benefited from siding, with minimal military involvement, with the coalition, which defeated his chief rival for regional and Baath Party leadership.

As the gulf crisis built, he cemented Syria's hold on Lebanon, in the process slaughtering several Lebanese Christians long considered friendly to the United States and Israel. Mr. Assad also has used some of the $2 billion or more in new Saudi aid to improve his supply of advanced weaponry. His cooperation on fighting terrorism -- Syria remains on the U.S. list of terrorist sponsors -- is an on-again, off-again proposition, U.S. officials say.

Mr. Baker's assembly of Syria, Jordan, the Gulf Cooperation Council and Egypt for a peace conference puts fierce pressure on Israel not to be the sole obstructionist at a time when it desperately needs U.S. financial assistance.

But if Israel participates, it will be armed with its own set of lessons from the gulf war, lessons that have reinforced the ruling Likud bloc's sense of the nation's isolation.

Had Saddam Hussein attacked Israel instead of Kuwait, "he probably would have appeared at the head of an Arab coalition," Defense Minister Moshe Arens said in Washington last month. "Israel would have had to deal with that situation on its own, probably on very short notice, like 24 hours or 48 hours."

Mr. Lugar argues that administration energies might have been directed more productively toward a more fruitful area of the post-Cold War world: Eastern Europe.

"They've spent an abnormal amount of time" on the peace process, he said. "Neglect would have been fully permissible."

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