Small events sometimes reveal large truths. Last month’s U.S. missile strike in the remote Bajaur district of Pakistan was such an event. Aimed at taking out Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s chief deputy, the strike missed its intended target and killed as many as 18 residents of the small village of Damadola. But the episode did not end there: outraged Pakistanis rose up in protest; days of highly publicized anti-American demonstrations followed. In effect, the United States had handed Muslims around the world another grievance to hold against Americans.

In stark, unmistakable terms, the Damadola affair lays bare the defects of the Bush administration’s response to 9/11. When President Bush in September 2001 launched the United States on a global war against terrorism, he scornfully abandoned the law-enforcement approach to which previous administrations had adhered. To all but the most militant true believers, it has become increasingly evident that in doing so Bush committed an error of the first order.

Underlying Bush’s declaration of war were two assumptions: first, that terrorism is subject to defeat; second, that military power, aggressively employed, offers the shortest road to victory. The Damadola incident only adds to the mountain of evidence calling both of those assumptions into question.

As most Americans have come to understand, terrorism, as currently employed in Washington’s political lexicon, is a code word. Seemingly referring to a tactic, it actually alludes to the violent Islamic radicals who perpetrated 9/11 and who if given the chance will attack us again.

In dealing with the radicals themselves, the old adage applies: it’s kill or be killed. On this point there can be little room for debate and none for compromise. But for the killing to be purposeful, it must occur selectively: to employ violence indiscriminately is to replenish the ranks of al-Qaeda and its spawn faster than we can deplete them. That way lies not security but bankruptcy and exhaustion.

Although paying lip service to this principle, the Bush administration has violated it in practice, most egregiously in Iraq, where heavy-handed tactics fanned the flames of insurgency, but also in Afghanistan and now Pakistan. Using President Bush’s conception of war as their mandate—and at times as a de facto grant of immunity—U.S. forces charged with bringing the guilty to book have too often ended up victimizing the innocent.

The fault lies less with the soldiers who pull the triggers, aim the missiles, and drop the bombs than with the nature of war itself. Even in a high-tech age, it remains a blunt instrument. Precision weapons have not made war precise, a truth brought home yet again by the events at Damadola.

It’s hard to tell which more vividly testifies to this president’s stupefying hubris: his self-proclaimed mission to democratize the Middle East or his claim that his administration is reinventing war. It’s probably a toss-up. The truth is that war remains today what it has always been: fraught with risk, uncertainty, and chance. When the unexpected happens, bystanders with the misfortune to be in the wrong place at the wrong time are most likely to suffer the consequences.

Granted, in some circumstances, the penalty for killing innocent civilians is nil. The Anglo-American “Transportation Plan” of World War II—the 1944 strategic bombing of Occupied Europe in preparation for the Normandy invasion—caused the deaths of some 12,000 citizens of France and Belgium. Whatever moral questions this bombing campaign might have raised, most of which remain largely unexamined, the bloodletting in no way impeded the Allied march to final victory. In the brutal calculus of that war, sacrificing some number of those whom the Allies were promising to liberate was “worth it.”

But outside of the bounds of total war, killing civilians—even unintentionally—becomes politically problematic. The attack at Damadola illustrates the consequences.

For the United States to unleash a salvo of missiles at a Pakistani village thought to house an al-Qaeda chieftain is the equivalent of the Mexican government bombing a southern California condo complex suspected of harboring a drug kingpin. Even if, as the Pakistani government has subsequently claimed, the missiles killed a handful of unidentified “foreign militants,” that minor success can in no way justify the use of force that takes the lives of women and children. Morally, the arithmetic doesn’t work. Politically, it’s even worse.

For the United States government to shrug off those deaths with expressions of regret or offers of monetary compensation simply confirms the worst that others have come to believe: that Americans are callous and arrogant with little regard for the lives of Muslims.

In depicting the attack on the World Trade Center as the opening volley of a global war—a reprise of Dec. 7, 1941—the Bush administration spun the awful events of that day in the wrong direction. The Islamists may nurse bizarre dreams of restoring the caliphate, but their existing claim to political legitimacy is marginal. Al-Qaeda is not the Wehrmacht or the Red Army; it is an international conspiracy, one that committed a singularly heinous crime. Osama bin Laden is not Hitler or Stalin —as a historical figure he comes nowhere near their baneful significance. He is a Mafioso.

When gangs besiege a neighborhood, the authorities send in more cops. If the authorities are smart, they insist upon the cops playing by the rules. Winning back the streets means taking the thugs out of circulation while protecting those who obey the laws. Coercion wielded without restraint only makes matters worse.

So too with the threat posed by radical Islam. Preventing a recurrence of 9/11 requires not war on a global scale, but the sustained, relentless enforcement of international norms. The task requires not an army but a posse. Rather than invasions and stand-off missile attacks, we need police and intelligence agencies, backed by special-operations forces, bringing the perpetrators of terror to justice, while taking care not to incite more Muslims to join the Islamist cause.

On Sept. 11, 2001, the law-enforcement approach to dealing with the Islamist conspiracy did fail. Yet it failed not because such an approach is inherently defective but as a result of incompetence and ineptitude at the highest levels of the United States government, evident in both Democratic and Republican administrations.

By the time this essay appears, the Bush administration will have moved on. As far as official Washington is concerned, the nameless, faceless dead of Damadola are already forgotten. Our warrior-president will continue to insist that we have no choice but to press on, seemingly blind to the moral havoc wreaked by his war and oblivious to the extent to which he is playing into the hands of our adversaries.

But our own interests demand that we not forget those whom we have killed. At Damadola we have handed the Islamists a victory of considerable proportions, further enflaming antipathy toward the U.S. in Pakistan and among Muslims generally. And the lesson to be taken from this self-inflicted defeat is clear: four bloody years into President Bush’s war, the time to think anew is at hand.

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Andrew J. Bacevich, professor of international relations at Boston University, is a member of the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy.