By Robin Wright and Glenn Kessler, Washington Post Staff Writers

With Haiti’s drama and the flare-up of violence in Iraq, the United States faces an overload of crises that Republicans and Democrats agree will be even more difficult to deal with now that the presidential campaign is in full swing.

Rarely has Washington had such a large and diverse array of foreign policy problems to juggle as leaders of both parties hit the campaign trail. And rarely have those crises been so central to an election, evident in the scathing volleys between President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) over the past week.

In the first presidential election since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the Bush administration finds its foreign policy initiatives to defend the United States from the new threats becoming hot election issues — and liabilities. “It’s fighting three wars: Iraq, Afghanistan and the global war on terror. It has to deal with everything from Colombia to Haiti, the Palestinians to North Korea, the World Trade Organization. If someone is arguing the administration has a lot on its plate and it is stretched, they’ve got a point,” said Richard N. Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations and a top foreign policy planning official in both Bush administrations.

But the broader question is whether the confluence of crises — and the intense election debate they have spawned — will crimp U.S. willingness or ability to focus on new problems or opportunities, leaving Washington instead reacting and on the defensive. Some Republican insiders have adopted a crisis-avoidance mantra for the election season: “No war in ’04.”

“It’s a very challenging time,” said James B. Steinberg, Brookings Institution director of foreign policy studies and deputy national security adviser for the Clinton administration. “There’s a real temptation to play defense rather than to take these things on. But when you do that, you risk becoming a hostage of current fortunes and, rather than shaping the environment, you allow other people to drive the agenda and set the pace.”

There are already signs that the Bush administration may be reluctant to tackle new hot spots, which Republicans and Democrats say is what happened during the uprising against President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Haiti’s controversial but democratically elected leader.

Washington resisted getting embroiled until the final days of the confrontation, despite long-brewing signs of trouble, because of “time and resources and focus and energy,” said Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.). With so many troops tied down in Iraq and elsewhere, “the last thing we need is another problem. So we try to get out on the cheap,” he said.

The United States is guilty of outright neglect for its failure to act earlier, Rep. Jose E. Serrano (D-N.Y.) told Secretary of State Colin L. Powell at a House Appropriations Committee hearing last week. “This was not an overnight crisis, and could we not have better supported the democracy in Haiti if we had been more generous with our assistance?” Serrano said.

Haiti is symptomatic of the dilemmas during an election season after 21/2 years of ambitious but controversial interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq. The next eight months is not a time for “discretionary commitments” that are “politically ambitious and costly entanglements,” Haass said. “Iraq is a war of choice. It is hard to imagine more wars of choice in the foreseeable future.”

White House officials deny that the administration is stretched thin or overburdened.

“This White House is the most calm that I’ve worked in. I was struck by this [at the end of February] as we were wrapping up six-party talks on North Korea and had Haiti and Iraq’s Transitional Administrative Law. The phones were ringing off the hook, but there was no sense of crisis in the White House. No one starts running a fever if there’s a crisis,” said a senior administration official who has worked in top positions for several administrations.

Political strategist Karl Rove is not urging Bush to kick problems down the road to avoid tough choices, said William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard and Vice President Dan Quayle’s chief of staff.

“Bush understands that it’s riskier in many cases to endlessly put off dealing with problems — and that they’ll come back to bite you at a time not of your choosing,” Kristol said. “Bush needs to go to the country on the basis of his foreign policy. That’s risky and some won’t like it. But he can’t say, ‘Elect me because of my foreign policy,’ but then, this year, put everything on hold.”

This White House also remembers the recent past. The first Bush administration adopted a “keep things calm” strategy in the 1992 campaign — and voters decided it wasn’t needed to keep around to handle foreign policy, Kristol added.

Yet Republicans and Democrats note signs that crisis overload and campaign realities have already weakened the United States’ ability to exert decisive leverage — and given greater edge to players in the field.

In the Middle East, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is pressing a unilateral plan to separate Israel from the Palestinians, rather than the road map for a Palestinian state designed by the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia — aware of U.S. sensitivities about key pro-Israeli votes. (U.S. and Israeli officials say Sharon’s plan fits within the road map.)

After taking the lead in pressing Iran on its nuclear technology, Washington now defers to Europe to prod the Islamic republic into surrendering data on its program.

In Asia, North Korea is playing hardball with the United States and its allies over nuclear disarmament, aware that the Bush administration is unlikely in an election year to cede much in return.

With a controversial referendum this spring in Taiwan over independence, China may be tempted to raise tensions across the straits of Taiwan to quash nationalist stirrings, less inhibited than in past years because of the U.S. election.

Election years are always periods of “genuine risk” for U.S. interests abroad, because candidates view problems through “a political prism” and often make commitments “on the run” based on “quick information” rather than all facets of national interest, said Lee H. Hamilton, a former Democratic chairman of the House International Relations Committee and now director of the Smithsonian’s Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “It’s very difficult to conduct U.S. foreign policy in the heat of an American election.”

But the range of U.S. commitments abroad since Sept. 11 has left the administration with limited fiscal, military and political mobility, from the inventory of weapons to the number of deployable troops, and from mounting costs to the public appetite for more foreign adventures, said Foreign Policy magazine editor Moises Naim.

Administrations have difficulty juggling more than two or three major issues at the same time, added David Gergen, director of Harvard’s Center for Public Leadership and a White House adviser to Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. “This White House is already dealing with three. Any more than that and you’ll drop one. It’s too small a system and staff,” he said.

Hagel added, “You can’t put more than 24 hours in Colin Powell’s schedule. The entire war cabinet can only have so much attention.”

But the problems of being overextended may well last beyond the election, foreign policy experts warn.

“No matter who wins, the same reality will confront the next president in 2005 — that we are severely overstretched and have to make a number of choices: whether to stop taking on new commitments, and if necessary discard some, or to increase the size of military forces and dramatically increase the defense budget,” said Geoffrey Kemp, a National Security Council staff member during the Reagan administration who is now at the Nixon Center.

“This sort of notion that we are omnipotent and at a unipolar moment that allows us to knock off regimes we don’t like, it’s an idea whose time has passed,” Kemp said.