The continuing unrest in Iraq and the deteriorating security situation in southern Afghanistan have stirred a contentious debate in Washington about the effectiveness of American foreign policy since September 11, 2001.

The 9/11 attacks, many analysts argue, signaled the advent of a new era of global politics, primarily focused on global threats. 

In a recent appearance on American television, Vice President Dick Cheney explained how the 9/11 attacks forced the Bush administration to rethink the guiding principles of U.S. foreign policy since the end of the Cold War.  

"We learned a lot from 9/11.  We saw in spite of the hundreds of billions of dollars we had spent on national security in the years up to 9/11, on that morning 19 men with box cutters and airline tickets came into the country and killed three thousand people.  If on 9/11 they had a nuke instead of airplanes, you would have been looking at a casualty toll that would rival all the deaths in all the wars fought by America in 230 years.  That's the threat that drove our thinking in the aftermath of 9/11 and does today," says Vice President Cheney.

He contends U.S. anti-terrorist efforts have been fruitful.  "America, as the sole superpower on the world stage, must take the lead role in the effort to build a less dangerous and more stable global order", says Vice President Cheney.  A central part of the American effort is the promotion of democracy, particularly in the Middle East.

Many analysts, including Robert Lieber, professor of government and foreign policy at Georgetown University agree.

"The problem involves the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, especially nuclear weapons, the problem involves non-state actors like al-Qaida or other that resemble it capable of acting with great violence across state boundaries. The problem includes the weakness of international institutions, which is also bound up with the immense difficulty of reconfiguring international institutions," maintains Professor Lieber. American leadership in dealing with these issues, he says, is indispensable.

Terrorism and Democracy

But other experts contend that U.S. foreign policy has complicated its fight against terrorism by conflating and expanding threats.  Charles Pena, a fellow at the Washington-based Coalition for Realistic Foreign Policy says that after 9/11 the United States should have concentrated solely on the most important danger, al-Qaida. 

"We need to focus on the one existential threat to the United States, which is no longer the Soviet Union, no longer a competitive hegemonic superpower, but the al-Qaida terrorist threat and so that means not focusing resources on threats that really are not threats to the United States.  We need to shed ourselves of the state sponsored paradigm and begin to focus on how do we deal with the members of al-Qaida, how do we go after them and then, more importantly, how do we change our foreign policy so that al-Qaida does not seem to have an endless pool of recruits from the Muslim world," says analyst Pena.

Moreover, he says U.S. promotion of democracy will do nothing to neutralize the al-Qaida.  The danger posed by al-Qaida, he says, does not stem from a lack of democracy in the Muslim world.   What's more, Pena points out, future democracy in Arab and Muslim countries is not likely to be pro-American, as recent election successes of Hamas in the Palestinian Territories and Hezbollah in Lebanon have shown.

Military Muscle vs. Diplomacy

Many foreign policy specialists argue America has been hurt by its willingness to flex its military muscle without international consensus or the backing of some of its key allies. 

Stephen Walt, Professor of International Affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government says Americans tend to see U.S. preeminence as benign, but that is not the view in many other parts of the world.

He emphasizes the importance of pursuing diplomacy in the Middle East as opposed to use of coercive measures. ?One of the key rules of diplomacy is to try to keep your enemies divided; to look for ways to split potential opponents apart. We should be trying to look at ways to try to separate Syria and Hezbollah and Iran and others from each other and not give them lots of reasons to collaborate," says Walt. "That means picking some of them, offering them things that they want, while not giving away anything that is critical to us so we can stop creating the very coalition that we are trying to resist.?  He adds U.S. foreign policy a number of difficult problems, most notably in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But other analysts argue that it is still too early to judge the success or failure of U.S. efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, both of which can boast of their first ever freely elected governments and fledgling democracies.

Andrew Bacevich, a military historian and author of American Empire and The New American Militarism: How Americans are Seduced by War, takes a long-term view.

He says, "If you look back at the history of American statecraft in the 20th century, the United States has made some massive blunders.  But by and large the United States has a capacity to learn and recover from its mistakes.  So without trying to minimize the situation that we're in Iraq, and without trying to minimize the difficulty of trying to get relations with the Islamic world on some kind of a decent footing, I am optimistic that we can work our way through this."

The best way for America to act in the post-9/11 world, Bacevich says, is for America to pursue a strategy of selective engagement and leading by example.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.