Anatol Lieven is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington DC. His latest book, America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism, was published in October by Harper Collins in the UK and Oxford University Press in the US.

In several areas of traditional foreign policy, the first Bush administration proved a great deal more pragmatic and moderate than many foreigners recognise, or than was suggested by its own rhetoric when it came to power. This is above all true of relations with Russia and China.

In the election campaign of 2000, and the first weeks of the new Bush administration, many statements by leading administration figures, including Condoleezza Rice, sugegsted that the administration was aiming to confront and contain China, and would also treat Russia as a threat and an enemy.

In fact, after some initial hiccups, even before 9/11 Bush administration policy was beginning to be characterised far more by traditional realism and pragmatism, coloured in the case of China by a Clintonesque desire to integrate China into the world economy and thereby diminish the danger of radical actions by Beijing. When, in the second American presidential debate of this year, Bush declared that he was working closely with China to bring influence to bear on North Korea over its nuclear programme, he was speaking the truth. Similarly, the Bush administration in recent years has gone further than any US administration since Nixon and Kissinger in seeking to discourage Taiwan from taking any step towards independence.

The most important reason for this change of approach is of course the unfolding military quagmire in Iraq, which means that the US simply cannot afford another major crisis elsewhere, let alone risk a major war. It is now widely recognized, if only in private, that a second major war of occupation on top of Iraq would in fact require the re-introduction of conscription – an idea hated by people and military alike. This is why no US administration is likely to decide deliberately to start such a war by invading another large country.

A grave disservice has been done to America’s image and interests by the compulsive American bureaucratic need to turn limited propositions about US foreign policy into universal "doctrines". Within literally a few days of the publication in 2002 of the so-called "Bush Doctrine" setting out America’s right to carry out preventive war, US officials were telling their foreign interlocuteurs that this was a "doctrine for one case only" – namely Iraq. By then however this "doctrine" had already succeeded in alarming the maximum possible number of Europeans and others.

Thanks to Vietnam, and now Iraq, the US military has emerged as one of the most cautious elements in the US political system when it comes to foreign military involvements. This caution reflects in part the nature and interests of the US military-industrial and security elites. These elites desire a degree of international tension which can justify high levels of military spending, but not the kind of serious war that could bring the international economy down in ruin, and America’s with it.

Even hardline figures like Donald Rumsfeld or Dick Cheney do not resemble Napoleon or Genghis Khan: they are not impelled by the nature of their system to make war against the whole world. In the end, in most areas they are tough but also cold pragmatists. The neoconservative camp does contain plenty of would-be Napoleons, but thanks to the Iraqi sghambles their influence in many areas of policy has considerably diminished. Unfortunately, the one area where neoconservative influence remains strong is also by far the most important area of security policy in the short to medium term This is the area of US strategy in the war on terror, and with regard to the Middle East.

Tragically, the Middle East is the great exception to this rule of the ultimate realist domination of US policy. Here, US behavior is colored by nationalist and religious passion to a degree which is not remotely the case in East Asia. And of course the unprecedented shock and horror of "9/11" has whipped the feelings of elements of the Right in the US about Muslims to something not far from madness.

In this region, the Israel lobby in the US also plays a critical role. Such is the power of this lobby that the US relationship with Israel cannot even be seriously discussed by the American political classes. This was apparent in the presidential campaign, when both candidates vied with each other in expressions of solidarity with Israel and avoided even the slightest hint of distance, late along criticism.

The most obvious effect of this is in greatly limiting the US ability to play any really positive role in solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Under intense pressure from the British Prime Minister Tony Blair – himself under pressure from his own Labour Party at home – the Bush administration has committed itself to achieve a Palestinian state by 2009.

It has said nothing however about the borders of that state or how far it will enjoy real independence from Israel – and without clarity on these points it seems extremely unlikely that US strategy will in fact achieve much. Instead, the US may simply continue the existing policy of putting pressure on the Palestinians to create "democracy" as a precondition of peace talks, in circumstances where Israeli actions, as well as Palestinian political divisions, make progress towards democracy very difficult.

The effects of the inability to discuss the relationship with Israel go far beyond the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The inability to discuss the US relationship with Israel also makes it vastly more difficult for US leaders to contemplate any new strategy towards Iran or Syria; since the influence of the Israel lobby has been central to maintaining a hard US line against both these countries. Partly as a result, the Bush administration has thrown away its best chances of bringing regional influence to bear to help stabilise the situation in Iraq, since both Iran and Syria fear a civil war in that country, and are strongly opposed to a growth in the influence of Sunni islamist radicalism, against which both have fought bitter battles in the past.

Without Syrian and Iranian help, the chances for any real stabilisation of the situation in Iraq look dire. That does not mean however that the US risks being driven out of Iraq as it was driven out of Vietnam. The dispoportion of force on the American side is far too great for that. Rather, the US will for the foreseeable future remain bogged down in a guerrilla and terrorist war.

It seems extremely unlikely that the Sunni Arab minority can be reconciled to the new Shia and Kurdish-dominated order in Iraq. If however the US arms and trains Shia and Kurdish militias and then withdraws, leaving them to control the Sunni Arab areas, then the resulting atrocities and massacres could inflame Arab opinion across the Middle East and destabilise the entire region.

As long as the Iraq war continues, it is inconceivable that the Bush administration will wilfully launch another ground war somewhere else. Nonetheless, the risks of wider conflict remain considerable. The administration has taken a very cold line towards the British, French and German compromise with Iran over that country’s nuclear programme.

By combining demands for the abandonment of that programme with wild talk of the need for regime change in Tehran, US represntatives have given the Iranian government little reason to give up its weapons programme. At the same time, administration rhetoric seems to be boxing the US into a position where if its demands are not met and the UN Security Council refuses to impose sanctions on Iran, Washington may feel that it has no choice but to bomb Iran’s nuclear sites itself, or allow Israel to do so. The results of such an attack on Iran would be incalculable, but could easily lead to a spiral or retaliation leading eventually to full-scale conflict.

Elsewhere in the region, the US lacks a political strategy other than the – largely rhetorical – emphasis on the need for more democracy. In South Asia, the US is working for the stabilisation of Afghanistan, and trying to promote an Indo-Pakistani settlement over Kashmir. However, it has never addressed this issue with the energy that would be necessary to bring about a resolution; and the departure of Richard Armitage as Deputy Secretary of State, and the ongoing obsession of America’s attention by Iraq, would seem to make this even less likely in future.

The most likely course of Bush administration policy in the war on terror is then not some radical new move like the invasion of Iraq in 2003, but rather a kind of paralysis leading to the blind continuation of existing policies. The US could be reduced essentially to treading water while hoping desperately that no new disaster occurs – at least, not before the next US election. Unfortunately, the Middle East is a region where it is wiser to expect crises, and to prepare for them.