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Becoming president as the Cold War ended, George Bush gave it an orderly burial.

But in the far less orderly post-Cold War era, the Bush team has had trouble finding its bearings. The United States, now the sole superpower and leading democracy in the world, has been far less successful in confronting the new era's problems and promises.

Mr. Bush, who took office with more foreign policy experience than any predecessor since Richard Nixon, seized the chance offered by a weakened and newly cooperative Soviet Union to prevent the superpower rivalry from ever reviving.

The United States smoothed the way for German unification and locked in arms deals that shrank conventional forces in Europe and drastically cut long-range nuclear arsenals. It halted proxy wars in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Afghanistan and blocked newly emerging republics from becoming nuclear powers.

When he saw a direct danger to American interests, he mobilized force and worked the levers of world power with skill and daring. Mr. Bush answered the threat posed by a corrupt dictator by invading Panama and grabbing Manuel Noriega.

After Iraq invaded oil-rich Kuwait, his administration lined up moderate Arabs, Western Europe and Russia in support of a war. Paid for largely by the Gulf Arabs themselves, the war was decisive, quick and incurred relatively few American casualties.

Immediately afterward, Mr. Bush turned Arab divisions and a Soviet power vacuum in the Middle East to his advantage, drawing Arab states, Palestinians and Israel into a peace process that offers more promise than any in decades.

These are widely applauded achievements. Yet the world now confronts a series of new dangers and opportunities, and how Mr. Bush has dealt with them draws harsher judgment.

The administration nurtured a relationship with Iraq's Saddam Hussein while well aware of his brutal domestic policies and pursuit of weapons of mass destruction. It failed to take seriously Iraqi threats to the Persian Gulf until after the invasion of Kuwait.

It responded equivocally to Beijing's suppression of democratic forces, adopting modest sanctions that failed to change the regime's behavior.

Even where democratic movements showed strength, the administration held back. It clung to the Kremlin's leadership after it had lost credibility and clout. And as Russia and the other ex-Soviet republics struggled without precedent in their history to make the colossal shift to free-market democracy, Mr. Bush almost had to be goaded into supporting it strongly.

Latin America and the Caribbean are now struggling to keep democratic governments intact despite restive military establishments, shaky economies and terrorism. Yet the administration's number one priority in much of the region is cocaine.

A trend has emerged: a preference for stable relations over potential friendships, and for existing commercial ties over potential new markets.

Added to this is a deep reluctance to impose American values or to intervene unless vital interests are clearly at stake. Thus the administration allowed Saddam Hussein to quash uprisings following the Gulf War, voiced condemnation of the mounting atrocities in the former Yugoslavia but avoided issuing any threats, and delicately skirted conflicts on the old Soviet rim.

The burning question as Mr. Bush's term ends is whether its reticence will cause these so-far-small post-Cold War crises to grow and proliferate to the point where much of this era's promise is lost.

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