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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Bogged down in two foreign wars, confronted by twin nuclear threats and seemingly powerless to halt a new Middle East crisis, President George W. Bush is learning hard lessons about the limits of U.S. power.
Nearly halfway into his second term, the growing litany of foreign policy challenges has left his administration overstretched militarily and diplomatically, forcing it to back away from the go-it-alone approach he has long favored.
Topping the crisis list is Iraq, where U.S.-led forces are locked in an unpopular war with no end in sight. Conditions have also started deteriorating in Afghanistan, another Texas-sized country where Washington thought it had the situation under control.
The predicament of the world's lone superpower, tied down fighting a bloody insurgency in Iraq more than three years after toppling Saddam Hussein, apparently has emboldened America's foes elsewhere, analysts say.
North Korea and Iran are pressing ahead with their nuclear programs, and Washington also lacks pressure points to get the Lebanese Hizbollah guerrillas to halt attacks on Israel that triggered the latest conflict.
With Bush's foreign policy in seeming disarray, his unguarded chat with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, caught on tape at the G8 summit in Russia on Monday, served as a telling sign of the new realities the president faces.
Bush, between bites of a buttered roll, told Blair he felt like telling U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to get on the phone with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, seen as having leverage with Hizbollah, and "make something happen."
His comments, including saying that someone had to tell Syria to "get Hizbollah to stop doing this shit," stunned policy experts accustomed to Bush taking an even dimmer view of the U.N. role in crisis resolution than his predecessors.
"Imagine that the United States is dependent on Kofi Annan to get the Syrians to cut out the shit," Martin Indyk, U.S. ambassador to Israel under former President Bill Clinton told an analysts' round-table in Washington. "We don't have the same levers at our disposal (as previous administrations)."
Analysts say Bush finds himself hamstrung by the doctrine he laid down after the Sept. 11 attacks to isolate "rogue states" and use force pre-emptively if necessary. He dubbed Iraq, Iran and North Korea the "axis of evil."
Now all three are haunting the final years of his presidency, and because he has frozen them out diplomatically, Washington has little leverage over them.
Engaged so deeply in Iraq, Bush has had little choice but to play down the potential use of force against Iran and North Korea, focusing instead on diplomacy.
He also backed away from the go-it-alone strategy used in Iraq and has tried to forge international consensus against Tehran and Pyongyang over their nuclear ambitions. Still divisions remain, with Russia and China against sanctions.
More recently, that approach has extended to the Middle East where Washington once jealously guarded its role as the region's chief peace broker.
Now, however, Bush's refusal to talk directly to Iran and Syria, the only countries thought capable of reining in Hizbollah, have limited his room to maneuver.
White House spokesman Tony Snow defended Bush's strategy, saying a key success had been persuading Saudi Arabia and other moderate Arab states to criticize Hizbollah.
Despite that, the crisis has raised new questions about a central thrust of the administration's Middle East policy, that U.S. efforts to spread democracy in the Arab world would help resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Instead, elections pushed by Washington brought the militant Islamic group Hamas to power in the Palestinian territories and entrenched its equally radical Muslim brethren from Hizbollah as a partner in the Lebanese government.
Even some of Bush's longtime conservative supporters have started criticizing his approach to world affairs.
Overhanging Bush's foreign policy woes are his low approval ratings. November's congressional elections, in which Bush's Republicans fear they could lose control of both houses, add to pressure for progress in global crises.
"At this point, he's just lucky he doesn't have to run for re-election," Wayne said.
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