"We are losing," warn Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon on the opening page of The Next Attack. In this chilling new book, they argue that the United States has, in the years since 9/11, frittered away more time than it took to win World War II: The Bush administration has plunged into a war of choice in Iraq that played into Osama bin Laden's hands and produced "an extraordinary amount of wheel-spinning" instead of shoring up America's domestic defenses. Meanwhile, the public's attention has wandered, and the jihadist movement has weathered the loss of its Afghan haven and recast itself into new, more supple forms. "Even in his most feverish reveries," the authors write, bin Laden could not "have imagined that America would stumble so badly."

To be sure, Benjamin and Simon are not models of Olympian detachment; they served on Richard A. Clarke's counterterrorism staff in the Clinton White House and gave low marks to the Bush administration's pre-9/11 record in their first book, The Age of Sacred Terror (2002). But the current volume, which bristles with evidence and expertise, should give even the most ardent partisan pause. Indeed, anyone who cares about putting al Qaeda out of business should make time for this book -- especially in Washington, which is both the headquarters of the fight against bin Laden and one of his prime targets. Written in clear and credible prose, The Next Attack is one of the most helpful, challenging goads to serious discussion of terrorism in recent years.

When Secretary of State William H. Seward tried to convince Abraham Lincoln in 1861 to tackle Britain and France as well as the Confederacy, the president mildly said, "Mr. Seward, one war at a time." By ignoring that dictum, Benjamin and Simon charge, the Bush administration took its eye off the ball. On the afternoon of Sept. 11, with the Pentagon still smoldering, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told aides that his instinct was to hit Saddam Hussein at the same time as bin Laden. Soon, Rumsfeld aides such as Douglas J. Feith were badgering intelligence officers to cherry-pick the data to find Iraqi ties to al Qaeda. For his part, Vice President Cheney bristled at the 9/11 Commission's blunt finding that Iraq and al Qaeda had not worked together on plots against Americans and talked up an ill-informed Weekly Standard article insinuating the contrary. (Benjamin and Simon, both seasoned consumers of intelligence, liken the article to "a high school biology student's reading of a CAT scan.")

The Next Attack's critique of the resultant war is, like the formerly anonymous CIA analyst Michael Scheuer's Imperial Hubris, written not by doves on Iraq but by hawks on al Qaeda. Reeling after the post-9/11 loss of their sanctuary in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, the jihadists found in Iraq a new core for their campaign -- complete with a pool of Americans to kill in order to demonstrate the fearlessness of a new cadre of radicals led by the newly prominent chief of Iraq's jihadists, Abu Musab Zarqawi. "If bin Laden is the Robin Hood of jihad," the authors write, "Zarqawi has been its Horatio Alger, and Iraq his field of dreams."

Not only did the invasion buttress bin Laden's main argument that the United States is a rapacious power determined to keep Muslims servile, Benjamin and Simon argue, it also drained resources away from the fight against America's true nemesis and wound up winning hearts and minds -- for bin Laden, that is. And the risk of more blowback is clear: As the State Department's annual report on terrorism put it recently, Iraq has become a "melting pot for jihadists from around the world, a training group and an indoctrination center" for a new generation of terrorists.

This book's Iraq chapters come as a glum reminder that, all too often, the debate over whether to invade Iraq was hermetically sealed off from the wider question of how best to destroy al Qaeda -- as an organization, a network, a brand and an ideology. Even the administration's critics (and human-rights-minded liberal hawks like George Packer) rarely talked about a potential war's opportunity cost -- about the range of urgent, attainable counterterrorism tasks that would be left undone because Washington had chosen to make the Iraq gamble its top post-9/11 priority.

And there is plenty to do. Beyond Iraq, the authors worry that bin Ladenism has now scattered like struck mercury. Amid the depressing litany of attacks from al Qaeda or its affiliates that they describe, the one that most troubles them is the 2004 Madrid blasts often known as 3/11. Although the operation's multiple, simultaneous blasts bore the "hallmark of al Qaeda," the attacks "were not designed, funded, or executed by al Qaeda operatives" but by a self-starting cell of local jihadists who went from passive rage to mass murder with alarming speed. The slaughter was "not the handiwork of Usama bin Laden" but "an homage -- both honor and emulation -- to him and his ideas," Benjamin and Simon argue. "Madrid demonstrated the global reach of bin Laden's ideas, not his operations."

Those ideas have made scant headway in the relatively well-integrated American Muslim community, which the authors call "largely immune to the radicalization going on elsewhere," but jihadist dogma has found worrisomely fertile soil in the minds of many alienated, marginalized Muslims quietly seething in Europe. With local jihadists giving radical Islam its "strategic depth," the United States and its friends face an Internet-fueled, "dynamic, ideologically driven insurgency" stretching from Europe to Southeast Asia to (perhaps most frightening of all) Pakistan -- a basket case of an ally whose military intelligence service was the Taliban's major patron, whose population reveres the proliferation-happy, ultranationalist father of the country's nuclear-arms program, whose major cities have hidden most of the biggest al Qaeda fish thus far caught and whose lawless border region with Afghanistan is widely thought to harbor bin Laden himself.

The Next Attack is stronger on diagnosis than prescription. Benjamin and Simon give the Bush administration credit for toppling the Taliban and catching such senior al Qaeda leaders as the 9/11 plot's mastermind, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, and most of the book's "first principles" for a winning counterterrorism strategy -- disrupting the terrorists' cells, denying them WMD, protecting key U.S. vulnerabilities -- sound reasonably similar to White House goals, at least on paper. The key difference is the authors' call for addressing underlying jihadist grievances. They urge Washington to try to ameliorate regional conflicts in Kashmir, Chechnya and the West Bank; offer large, "can't refuse"-style foreign aid packages to Muslim states in exchange for political reforms; and gradually draw down the number of U.S. troops in Iraq en route to handing the country over to freshly trained Iraqi security forces. The idea is to try to defuse al Qaeda's ideological appeal by recognizing that, over the long haul, our terrorism problem is rooted not just in American fear but in Arab loathing. They argue that America's image problem in the Arab and Muslim world is too big for public diplomacy ("the bureaucratic term for propaganda"); it will require actual diplomacy.

The authors also rightly insist that "an aggressive offense" doesn't obviate "the need for a strong defense." Their assessment of the efficacy of U.S. homeland security efforts may make readers rush to buy canned goods: feeble leadership from the White House, feckless oversight from Congress, fouled lines of coordination with state and local governments, and fuming from surly, dysfunctional bureaucracies like the FBI that still balk at the prospect of reform. ("I wish that I had it," says Gary Bald, a senior FBI counterterrorism official, when asked about his expertise on the Middle East. "It would be nice.") Benjamin and Simon urge the lumbering, post-Katrina Department of Homeland Security to set priorities ruthlessly -- to focus on protecting key parts of U.S. infrastructure, spending more than $7 billion over 10 years to secure America's vulnerable ports, preparing for a biological weapons attack and keeping a beady eye on the borders and any cells that may be forming at home.

Matters may actually be even more dire than this. The authors are, if anything, too sanguine about the threat of nuclear terrorism, which they treat seriously but briefly. While they note that a 2003 treatise from a promising young Saudi cleric blessed "the use of nuclear weapons so long as no more than 10 million people are killed," the book would have done well to spend more time on what remains America's single most urgent national security priority, bar none: securing the loose nuclear weapons and material in the former Soviet Union, Pakistan and elsewhere that bin Laden has declared it a sacred duty to acquire. With the Iraq war, the United States has exerted tremendous energy to block a highly unlikely route for al Qaeda to get the bomb; surely it should show equal vigor to block the most likely route.

While the book's tone is generally sober, The Next Attack sometimes gets carried away. The authors argue that "the on-the-job training" that jihadists have enjoyed in Iraq makes it "a better sanctuary, training ground, and laboratory than they ever had in Afghanistan"; in fact, the harried insurgents of Iraq are learning plenty about battlefield tactics but lack the running room that let al Qaeda dream up terrorist "spectaculars" from Afghanistan. Benjamin and Simon are right to worry that strains over Iraq could fray U.S. friends' willingness to share intelligence about the jihadists, but they cite no evidence that it's happened yet. A brief concluding chapter on the role of the administration's evangelical supporters in framing the war on terrorism feels underdeveloped and hastily written. Most egregiously, the authors approvingly cite a prescient 2002 op-ed piece that warned that invading Iraq could worsen jihadist violence, written by "a former counterterrorism official" -- who happened to be one Daniel Benjamin.

That said, The Next Attack remains a valuable act of provocation -- the most sustained security-minded critique yet of the Bush administration's counterterrorism efforts. With their constant evocation of the painful trade-offs and constraints that are inherent to policymaking, its pages have the cumulative effect of reminding the reader how hard the U.S. government finds it to walk and chew gum at the same time -- and how glib and unsophisticated the national debate on al Qaeda has all too often been. Part of that stems from an excess of White House surety, but part of it has also been the fault of Benjamin and Simon's frequently timid party. In 1960, John F. Kennedy ran for president not in spite of the Cold War but because of it; today's Democrats, rather than relishing the chance to defend the republic in another hour of maximum danger, can seem almost palpably intimidated by the prospect of having to wage a long twilight struggle against bin Ladenism. JFK's party has yet to produce a major figure seeking office precisely because they think they'd do a better job of destroying al Qaeda than the GOP. Meanwhile, 2005 polls show that only about 15 percent of Americans think terrorism should be the government's top priority this year. Those citizens may feel otherwise after reading this book. "You may not be interested in war," Trotsky said, "but war is interested in you." *

Warren Bass is a senior editor of Book World and a former member of the 9/11 Commission staff.