The urgent necessity to disband terrorist networks abroad and to secure the American homeland has been replaced by the Bush administration's puzzling preoccupation with Saddam Hussein. He has become George Bush's White Whale, an obsession that has cost us international solidarity in eradicating terrorism, the goodwill of tens of millions of people worldwide and the role of benign democratic world leader.

While deploying divisions to the Middle East our government has not been training and equipping police, fire and emergency health responders in the United States. While splitting the United Nations and NATO, our government has not made our vulnerable ports safer. While paying tens of billions of (deficit) tax dollars to Turkey, Yemen and other countries for basing rights in the Middle East, our president is not preparing the United States to respond to the terrorist attacks the CIA has predicted will most probably occur as a response to our preemptive invasion of a sovereign Arab nation. It is difficult to imagine that the president seriously believes an invasion of Iraq will reduce the terrorist threat to the United States.

What is worse, our president does not trust his own people. He does not trust us enough to tell us which other nations will provide combat forces and in what numbers, how long our military will remain in the volatile Middle East or how much the long-term military enterprise will cost in deficit tax dollars. Most disturbing, our president does not trust us enough to tell us the casualty estimates for our sons and daughters and for Iraqi civilians. The Pentagon has produced low, medium and high risk estimates. The president simply chooses not to disclose them for the justifiable fear that public support for war with Iraq will erode.

Given the pattern of public deception in Vietnam, we should have learned to demand candor and respect for our judgment from our elected officials. Instead, we are now tacitly permitted to believe war in Iraq will resemble Gulf War I and Afghanistan -- quick, relatively bloodless and successful. We must pray that it will be. But prayers are no substitute for a leader who trusts us enough to be honest about the risks of war.

Obsession with Hussein has caused the president to neglect the probable consequences of the Iraqi war -- attacks on the United States. We are not sufficiently prepared for the next terrorist attacks -- attacks very likely to be precipitated by massive U.S. military invasion -- and probable long-term occupation, of an Islamic nation in the most volatile region on Earth. "America Still Unprepared, Still at Risk," reported the Council on Foreign Relations task force I co-chaired with Warren Rudman last fall. To leave one's own camp exposed and vulnerable when an attack is made invites counterattack; it is not the hallmark of prudent leadership.

What is our strategic objective in Iraq -- disarmament, regime change, to mount a massive democratic revolution throughout the Arab world or all of the above? Once again, the target changes, and presidential candor is missing. It is cynical in the extreme to assume the American people should not be told that we intend to conduct a political revolution among 1.1 billion people spread from Gibraltar to eastern Indonesia.

The extravagance, not to say arrogance, of this epic undertaking is sufficiently breathtaking in its hubris to make Woodrow Wilson blush. And as a visionary, George W. Bush is no Woodrow Wilson. I find nothing in the writings of America's founders, including those of the expansive Alexander Hamilton, that suggests our national purpose should be the remaking of the world in our own image. In fact, most founders, and the prudent leaders since, have believed we should focus on perfecting our own democracy as an example to the world.

But if you are up for preemptive war against nations that do not meet the historic standard of representing an imminent and unavoidable threat, then you are pretty much up for anything.

Iraq is a detour from the war on terrorism. Hussein mysteriously morphed into Osama bin Laden, or vice-versa. But at least we have the advantage -- for the moment -- of knowing what country Hussein is in. Instead of wondering how many Americans will be sacrificed to urban warfare in Baghdad, we should be concerned with equipping and training police and firefighters in Baltimore, Dallas and Denver. Right now, first things are being put second and third as our leaders obsess about an isolated Iraq.

The war on terrorism is too serious to become the vehicle for settling old scores, either abroad or between neo-hawks and traditionalists in the administration. It is also too serious to become an excuse -- a kind of foreign policy Trojan horse -- to experiment with the new doctrine of preemption to replace containment. And if we really do intend to bring democracy to the Arab world at the point of a bayonet, the American people deserve the candid accounting we have not been given.

The writer is a former Democratic senator from Colorado. He was co-chairman, with former senator Warren Rudman, of the U.S. Commission on National Security/21st Century.