f political authority comes from achieving a monopoly on legitimate violence, then the Americans, from those early days when they sat in their tanks and watched over the wholesale looting of public institutions, never did achieve political authority in Iraq. They fussed over liberalizing the economy and writing constitutions and achieving democracy in the Middle East when in fact there was really only one question in Iraq, emerging again and again in each successive political struggle, most recently in the disastrously managed writing of the constitution: how to shape a new political dispensation in which the age-old majority Shia can take control from the minority Sunni and do it in a way that minimized violence and insecurity - do it in a way, that is, that the Sunnis would be willing to accept, however reluctantly, without resorting to armed resistance. This might have been accomplished with hundreds of thousands of troops, iron control and a clear sense of purpose. The Americans had none of these. Instead they relied first on a policy of faith and then on one of improvisation, driven in part by the advice of Iraqi exile "friends" who used the Americans for their own purposes. Some of the most strikingly ideological decisions, like abruptly firing and humiliating the entire Iraqi Army and purging from their jobs many hundreds of thousands of Baath Party members, seemed designed to alienate and antagonize a Sunni population already terrified of its security in the new Iraq. "You Americans," one Sunni businessman said to me in Baghdad last February, shaking his head in wonder, "you have created your own enemies here."
The United States never used what authority it had to do more than pretend to control the gathering chaos, never managed to look clearly at the country and confront Iraq's underlying political dysfunction, of which the tyranny of Saddam Hussein was the product, not the cause. "The illusionists," Ambassador John Negroponte's people called their predecessors, the officials of the Coalition Provisional Authority under L. Paul Bremer III. Now, day by day, the illusion is slipping away, and with it what authority the Americans had in Iraq. What is coming to take its place looks increasingly like a failed state.
VI. It is an oft-heard witticism in Washington that the Iraq war is over and that the Iranians won. And yet the irony seems misplaced. A truly democratic Iraq was always likely to be an Iraq led not only by Shia, who are the majority of Iraqis, but by those Shia parties that are the largest and best organized - the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and the Dawa Islamic Party - which happen to be those blessed by the religious authorities and nurtured in Iran. Nor would it be a surprise if a democratic Saudi Arabia turned out to be a fundamentalist Saudi Arabia and one much less friendly to the United States. Osama bin Laden knows this, and so do American officials. This is why the United States is "friendly" with "apostate regimes." Democratic outcomes do not always ensure friendly governments. Often the contrary is true. On this simple fact depends much of the history of American policy not only in the Middle East but also in Latin America and other parts of the world throughout the cold war. Bush administration officials, for all their ideological fervor, did the country no favor by ignoring it.
In launching his new cold war, George W. Bush chose a peculiarly ideological version of cold-war history. He opted not for containment, the cautious, status quo grand strategy usually attributed to the late George F. Kennan, but for rollback. Containment, by which the United States determinedly resisted Soviet attempts to expand its influence, would have meant a patient, methodical search for terrorists, discriminating between those groups that threaten the United States and those that do not, pursuing the former with determined, practical policies that would have drawn much from the military and law-enforcement cooperation of our allies and that would have included an effective program of nonproliferation to keep weapons of mass destruction out of terrorist hands. Rollback, on the other hand, meant something quite different; those advocating it during the 1950's considered containment immoral, for it recognized the status quo: Communist hegemony in Eastern Europe and parts of Asia. They wanted instead to destroy Communism entirely by "rolling back" Communists from territory they had gained, as Gen. Douglas MacArthur did briefly and, it turned out, catastrophically, in North Korea, and as President Eisenhower refused to do when he declined to support the Hungarian revolutionaries against the Soviet invasion in 1956.
The original advocates of rollback lost that struggle. In this new cold war, the rollback advocates triumphed and adopted as the heart of their policy a high-stakes, metaphysical gamble to "democratize the Middle East" and thus put an end, once and for all, to terrorism. They relied on a "domino theory" in which the successful implantation of democracy in Iraq would lead to a "democratic revolution" across the region. The ambition of this idea is breathtaking; it depends on a conception of American power as virtually limitless and on an entirely fanciful vision of Iraqi politics, a kind of dogged political wish-fulfillment that no sober analysis could penetrate. Replacing any real willingness to consider whether a clear course existed between here and there, between an invasion and occupation of Iraq and a democratic Middle East, was, at bottom, the simple conviction that since the United States enjoyed a "preponderance of power" unseen in the world since the Roman Empire, and since its cause of democratic revolution was so incontrovertibly just, defeat was inconceivable. One detects here an echo of Vietnam: the inability to imagine that the all-powerful United States might lose.
American power, however, is not limitless. Armies can destroy and occupy, but it takes much more to build a lasting order, especially on the shifting sands of a violent political struggle: another Vietnam echo. Learning the lesson this time around may prove more costly, for dominoes can fall both ways. "Political engineering on this scale could easily go awry," Stephen D. Biddle, a U.S. Army War College analyst, wrote this past April in a shrewd analysis. "If a democratic Iraq can catalyze reform elsewhere, so a failed Iraq could presumably export chaos to its neighbors. A regionwide Lebanon might well prove beyond our capacity to police, regardless of effort expended. And if so, then we will have replaced a region of police states with a region of warlords and chronic instability. This could easily prove to be an easier operating environment for terrorism than the police states it replaces."
The sun is setting on American dreams in Iraq; what remains now to be worked out are the modalities of withdrawal, which depend on the powers of forbearance in the American body politic. But the dynamic has already been set in place. The United States is running out of troops. By the spring of 2006, nearly every active-duty combat unit is likely to have been deployed twice. The National Guard and Reserves, meanwhile, make up an unprecedented 40 percent of the force, and the Guard is in the "stage of meltdown," as Gen. Barry McCaffrey, retired, recently told Congress. Within 24 months, "the wheels are coming off." For all the apocalyptic importance President Bush and his administration ascribed to the Iraq war, they made virtually no move to expand the military, no decision to restore the draft. In the end, the president judged his tax cuts more important than his vision of a "democratic Middle East." The administration's relentless political style, integral to both its strength and its weakness, left it wholly unable to change course and to add more troops when they might have made a difference. That moment is long past; the widespread unpopularity of the occupation in Iraq and in the Islamic world is now critical to insurgent recruitment and makes it possible for a growing insurgent force numbering in the tens of thousands to conceal itself within the broader population.
Sold a war made urgent by the imminent threat of weapons of mass destruction in the hands of a dangerous dictator, Americans now see their sons and daughters fighting and dying in a war whose rationale has been lost even as its ending has receded into the indefinite future. A war promised to bring forth the Iraqi people bearing flowers and sweets in exchange for the beneficent gift of democracy has brought instead a kind of relentless terror that seems inexplicable and unending. A war that had a clear purpose and a certain end has now lost its reason and its finish. Americans find themselves fighting and dying in a kind of existential desert of the present. For Americans, the war has lost its narrative.
Of the many reasons that American leaders chose to invade and occupy Iraq - to democratize the Middle East; to remove an unpredictable dictator from a region vital to America's oil supply; to remove a threat from Israel, America's ally; to restore the prestige sullied on 9/11 with a tank-led procession of triumph down the avenues of a conquered capital; to seize the chance to overthrow a regime capable of building an arsenal of chemical and biological weapons - of all of these, it is remarkable that the Bush administration chose to persuade Americans and the world by offering the one reason that could be proved to be false. The failure to find the weapons of mass destruction, and the collapse of the rationale for the war, left terribly exposed precisely what bin Laden had targeted as the critical American vulnerability: the will to fight.
How that collapse, reflected in poll numbers, will be translated into policy is a more complicated question. One of 9/11's more obvious consequences was to restore to the Republicans the advantage in national security they surrendered with the cold war's end; their ruthless exploitation of this advantage and the Democrats' compromising embrace of the Iraq war has in effect left the country, on this issue, without an opposition party. Republicans, who fear to face the voters shackled to a leader whose approval ratings have slid into the low 40's, are the ones demanding answers on the war. The falling poll numbers, the approaching midterm elections and the desperate manpower straits of the military have set in motion a dynamic that could see gradual American withdrawals beginning in 2006, as Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the commander in Iraq, acknowledged publicly in July. Unless Iraq's political process, which has turned another downward spiral with Sunni negotiators' rejection of the constitution, can somehow be retrieved, American power in Iraq will go on deteriorating.
Two and a half years into the invasion, for U.S. policy in Iraq, the time of "the illusionists" has finally passed. Since the January elections, which Sunnis largely boycotted, American officials have worked hard to persuade Sunni leaders to take part in the constitutional referendum and elections, hoping thereby to isolate the Baathist and Islamist extremists and drain strength from the insurgency. This effort comes very late, however, when Iraqi politics, and the forces pulling the country apart, have taken on a momentum that waning American power no longer seems able to stop. Even as the constitutional drama came to a climax last month, the president telephoned Abdul Aziz Hakim, the Shia cleric who leads the Sciri Party, appealing for concessions that might have tempted the Sunnis to agree to the draft; the Shia politician, faced with the American president's personal plea, did not hesitate to turn him down flat. Perhaps the best hope now for a gradual American withdrawal that would not worsen the war is to negotiate a regional solution, which might seek an end to Sunni infiltration from U.S. allies in exchange for Shia guarantees of the Sunni position in Iraq and a phased American departure.
For all the newfound realism in the second-term administration's foreign policy, in which we have seen a willingness finally to negotiate seriously with North Korea and Iran, the president seems nowhere close to considering such an idea in Iraq, insisting that there the choice is simple: the United States can either "stay the course" or "cut and run." "An immediate withdrawal of our troops in Iraq, or the broader Middle East, as some have called for," the president declared last month, "would only embolden the terrorists and create a staging ground to launch more attacks against America and free nations." These words, familiar and tired, offering no solution beyond staying a course that seems to be leading nowhere, have ceased to move Americans weary of the rhetoric of terror. That does not mean, however, that they may not be entirely true.
VII. We cannot know what future Osama bin Laden imagined when he sent off his 19 suicide terrorists on their mission four years ago. He got much wrong; the U.S. military, light years ahead of the Red Army, would send no tank divisions to Afghanistan, and there has been no uprising in the Islamic world. One suspects, though, that if bin Laden had been told on that day that in a mere 48 months he would behold a world in which the United States, "the idol of the age," was bogged down in an endless guerrilla war fighting in a major Muslim country; a world in which its all-powerful army, with few allies and little sympathy, found itself overstretched and exhausted; in which its dispirited people were starting to demand from their increasingly unpopular leader a withdrawal without victory - one suspects that such a prophecy would have pleased him.
In December 2003, a remarkable document, "Jihadi Iraq: Hopes and Dangers," appeared on the Internet, setting out a fascinating vision of how to isolate the United States and pick off its allies one by one. The truly ripe fruit, concludes the author, is Spain: "In order to force the Spanish government to withdraw from Iraq the resistance should deal painful blows to its forces. . .[and] make utmost use of the upcoming general election.. . .We think that the Spanish government could not tolerate more than two, maximum three blows, after which it will have to withdraw.. . ."
Three months later, on March 11, 2004 - 3/11, as it has come to be known - a cell of North African terrorists struck at the Atocha Train Station in Madrid. One hundred ninety-one people died - a horrific toll but nowhere near what it could have been had all of the bombs actually detonated, simultaneously, and in the station itself. Had the terrorists succeeded in bringing the roof of the station down, the casualties could have surpassed those of 9/11.
In the event, they were quite sufficient to lead to the defeat of the Spanish government and the decision of its successor to withdraw its troops from Iraq. What seems most notable about the Madrid attack, however - and the attack on Jewish and foreign sites in Casablanca on May 17, 2003, among others - is that the perpetrators were "home-grown" and not, strictly speaking, Al Qaeda. "After 2001, when the U.S. destroyed the camps and housing and turned off the funding, bin Laden was left with little control," Marc Sageman, a psychiatrist and former C.I.A. case officer who has studied the structure of the network, has written. "The movement has now degenerated into something like the Internet. Spontaneous groups of friends, as in Madrid and Casablanca, who have few links to any central leadership, are generating sometimes very dangerous terrorist operations, notwithstanding their frequent errors and poor training."
Under this view, Al Qaeda, in the form we knew it, has been subsumed into the broader, more diffuse political world of radical Salafi politics. "The network is now self-organized from the bottom up and is very decentralized," Sageman wrote. "With local initiative and flexibility, it's very robust."
We have entered the era of the amateurs. Those who attacked the London Underground - whether or not they had any contact with Al Qaeda - manufactured their crude bombs from common chemicals (including hydrogen peroxide, bleach and drain cleaner), making them in plastic food containers, toting them to Luton Station in coolers and detonating them with cellphone alarms. One click on the Internet and you can pull up a Web site offering a recipe - or, for that matter, one showing you how to make a suicide vest from commonly found items, including a video download demonstrating how to use the device: "There is a possibility that the two seats on his right and his left might not be hit with the shrapnel," the unseen narrator tells the viewer. Not to worry, however: "The explosion will surely kill the passengers in those seats."
During the four years since the attacks of 9/11, while terrorism worldwide has flourished, we have seen no second attack on the United States. This may be owed to the damage done Al Qaeda. Or perhaps planning and preparation for such an attack is going on now. When it comes to the United States itself, the terrorists have their own "second-novel problem" - how do you top the first production? More likely, though, the next attack, when it comes, will originate not in the minds of veteran Qaeda planners but from this new wave of amateurs: viral Al Qaeda, political sympathizers who nourish themselves on Salafi rhetoric and bin Laden speeches and draw what training they require from their computer screens. Very little investment and preparation can bring huge rewards. The possibilities are endless, and terrifyingly simple: rucksacks containing crude homemade bombs placed in McDonald's - one, say, in Times Square and one on Wilshire Boulevard, 3,000 miles away, exploded simultaneously by cellphone. The effort is small, the potential impact overwhelming.
Attacks staged by amateurs with little or no connection to terrorist networks, and thus no visible trail to follow, are nearly impossible to prevent, even for the United States, with all of its power. Indeed, perhaps what is most astonishing about these hard four years is that we have managed to show the world the limits of our power. In launching a war on Iraq that we have been unable to win, we have done the one thing a leader is supposed never to do: issue a command that is not followed. A withdrawal from Iraq, rapid or slow, with the Islamists still holding the field, will signal, as bin Laden anticipated, a failure of American will. Those who will view such a withdrawal as the critical first step in a broader retreat from the Middle East will surely be encouraged to go on the attack. That is, after all, what you do when your enemy retreats. In this new world, where what is necessary to go on the attack is not armies or training or even technology but desire and political will, we have ensured, by the way we have fought this forever war, that it is precisely these qualities our enemies have in large and growing supply.
Mark Danner is a professor of journalism and politics at the University of California at Berkeley and Bard College and the author, most recently, of "Torture and Truth: America, Abu Ghraib and the War on Terror."