Step by bloody step the Iraq War moves toward its denouement. Having set this tragedy in motion, the United States today finds itself consigned to the role of bystander, the world’s only superpower having long since lost control of events. As things unravel, the president—the most powerful man in the world—is demonstrably powerless to affect the outcome. Meanwhile, American soldiers fight on, even as it becomes increasingly apparent that the Army only recently thought all but invincible will not win this war.

For the Bush White House, September 2006 will be remembered as the month when the roof caved in. Bad news came in successive waves: the Marine intelligence report declaring Iraq’s critical Anbar Province all but lost; the failure of an all-out effort to win “the Battle of Baghdad”; the warnings from senior military officers that the Army, its readiness in free-fall, is nearing the end of its rope; opinion polls showing that a large majority of Iraqis simply want the Americans out of their country; above all, the leak of the classified National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) declaring, “the Iraq jihad is shaping a new generation of terror leaders and operatives.” In response to all of this, the administration has had little to offer other than to repeat President Bush’s conviction that “the only way to protect this country is to stay on the offense.”

Although not especially adept at using the English language, the president manages in this short sentence to capture the fundamental error of judgment that has mired his administration in a crisis from which it cannot extricate itself.

To go on the offensive and to stay there: ever since the end of the Cold War, this vision has animated advocates of U.S. global hegemony. The collapse of communism, they believed, had left the United States in a uniquely advantageous position. The imperative of the moment was to press that advantage, to exploit America’s unquestioned military superiority, creating a new world order that would perpetuate American global supremacy and ensure the universal embrace of American values.

To proponents of this view—whether those inside government like Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz or well-connected outsiders like Richard Perle or William Kristol—9/11 came as a godsend of sorts. With shock, fear, and anger came breathtaking new possibilities. Old constraints fell away. All that was needed was a suitable launching pad.

This is where Iraq came in. Pathetically weak, vulnerable, and suffering under the boot of a sclerotic dictatorship, Iraq seemingly offered the ideal point of departure for inaugurating this new strategic offensive.

No one seriously expected Iraq to become the central front in the so-called global war on terror. The incursion was supposed to be quick and decisive. No one at senior levels of the Bush administration imagined that it might prove to be protracted and debilitating—nor did any of the neoconservatives or neoliberals who proclaimed the wisdom of President Bush’s new doctrine of preventive war and were eager to have a go at Saddam Hussein.

The hawks did not view Baghdad as a destination. They saw it as a way station. U.S. forces would arrive, depose the dictator, and then quickly move on to tasks of even greater urgency: bringing Iran and Syria to heel, engineering the transformation of Egypt and Saudi Arabia, then turning perhaps to the Horn of Africa, to Pakistan, and to Central Asia. Ultimately the United States would pacify the entire Islamic world, while not so incidentally putting other would-be adversaries like China on notice. Along the way, it would establish important new precedents and carve out for the United States prerogatives permitted no other nation. This project would also educate the American people as to the nation’s proper responsibilities and cement the authority of those who directed national-security policy.

The members of this national-security elite fancied themselves architects of history. Just as the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, and the creation of NATO in the late 1940s had set an azimuth that the United States followed for decades thereafter, so too regime change in Baghdad promised in a single stroke to reorient—even revolutionize—U.S. policy.

But there was more. Unlike Truman’s strategy of containment, which in effect had entailed an amoral accommodation with communist tyranny, the offensive orientation of this new strategy held out the prospect of eliminating evil from the face of the earth. This time there would be no “long twilight struggle”; instead, righteousness was certain to prevail.

A perverse sort of genius informed this vision. Bristling with megalomania, it also reflected a profoundly American sensibility: an insistence that it was incumbent upon the United States to set things right and that the world would surely accept and even embrace the American dominion that resulted. Have we not, after all, always stood for freedom?

Alas, the doctrine of taking the offensive ran aground almost immediately, lost its momentum, and has never recovered. The Bush administration and its supporters have spent the past three and half years trying to deny this fact or searching for ways to work around it.

During the transition from summer to fall, further denial became impossible. Even the generals now know that victory is not the cards—they have quietly redefined “winning” as holding out long enough for the Iraqis to take over the fight.

How long U.S. forces can sustain their current holding action is now emerging as a pressing question. As if to emphasize the growing scarcity of troops, the Pentagon in recent weeks has both extended the tours of units already in Iraq and moved up the deployment dates of units back home that are headed for the war zone.

Meanwhile, the once crack Third Infantry Division, preparing for its third Iraq tour, has two of its four brigades without tanks or other heavy equipment. The Army’s chief of staff complains that army depots are clogged with 600 battle-damaged and worn-out Abrams tanks and 1,000 Bradley Fighting Vehicles awaiting repair. The Army lacks the money to fix them—this despite the fact that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have now cost an estimated $500 billion.

Gen. John Abizaid, the commander of U.S. Central Command, recently let the cat out of the bag. Asked to assess the progress in Iraq, the general replied: “Given unlimited time and unlimited support, we’re winning the war.” Abizaid is no fool: he knows that the time allotted for this war is running out and that his available resources are permanently constrained.

The distressed condition of the U.S. military only makes the findings of the NIE on “Trends in Global Terrorism” the more devastating. All of the sacrifices of American soldiers in Iraq have served only to exacerbate the problem of Islamic radicalism. The U.S. presence in Iraq, the NIE reports, is “breeding deep resentment of U.S. involvement in the Islamic world and cultivating supporters for the global jihadist movement.” We’re in a deep hole, and “staying on the offense” has only made it deeper still.

Those on the outside who once clamored the most insistently for war have by now largely turned on President Bush, accusing his administration (not without justice) of mind-boggling incompetence.

Among the insiders who sold Mr. Bush on his offensive strategy, those who remain in office—like Rumsfeld or Vice President Cheney—have been largely discredited. A handful of other survivors, pre-eminently Condoleezza Rice, have distanced themselves from their prior ideological enthusiasms. Chameleons do well in politics.

Among the many who have moved on, few rise to the president’s defense. Some foolishly pen self-exculpatory memoirs that no one takes seriously. Others keep their silence, whether out of prudence or as penance we cannot say.

As the evening of his presidency approaches, George W. Bush alone persists, armored in ignorance and resolve but adamant that from perseverance will come victory. Were it not for the wreckage that he has strewn in his wake, one might almost feel a twinge of sympathy for the man.

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Andrew J. Bacevich is professor of history and international relations at Boston University.