A May 23 Outlook article included excerpts from a March 2001 memorandum from Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to President Bush. The story said incorrectly that the memo had been quoted in "Bush at War" by Bob Woodward. It was actually quoted in Woodward's new book, "Plan of Attack." (Published 5/29/04)

We have come to a delicate moment in an absorbing drama. The actors seem unsure of their roles. The audience is becoming restless with the confusion on stage. But the scriptwriters keep trying to convince the crowd that the ending they imagined can still, somehow, come to pass.

The authors stick to their plotline even as its plausibility melts away, and why not? For months the audience kept applauding; many of the reviewers were admiring, while many others kept still.

No more. Senior military officers, government officials, diplomats and others working in Iraq, commentators, experts and analysts have all joined a chorus of doubters that is large and growing. And the applause -- in this case, public approval as measured in polls -- is fading.

Already, some of the authors' friends are grabbing them by their rhetorical lapels. "Failures are multiplying," wrote George Will, the conservative columnist, yet "no one seems accountable."

The original script included parts for American soldiers and diplomats, Iraqis, Arabs and Europeans, but many declined to play along or refused to perform as directed. No matter -- the authors promised to "stay the course." A quick look back at the list of promises made and then abandoned demonstrates how little the play now conforms to the original scenario. And by the way, just what is that "course" we are staying on?

Americans are hopeless romantics -- we're always looking for the triumph of the good guys and happiness ever after. But any happy endings in Iraq remain so remote that they are invisible from here. Today no one seems able to come up with a realistic definition of what "success" might be. Instead the Bush administration has entrusted the future of the entire enterprise to an Algerian diplomat named Lakhdar Brahimi, whom we expect to assemble an Iraqi government in the next week or two -- an Algerian magic trick.

Many in the new chorus of doubters have enumerated the ways in which the success promised by the Bush administration both before and after the war has eluded us.

We have not made a "a crucial advance in the campaign against terror," the words President Bush used when he declared victory in "Operation Iraqi Freedom" on May 1, 2003. Instead we have stimulated new hatred of the United States in precisely the regions from which future terrorist threats are most likely to arise, while alienating our traditional allies. By embracing Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to withdraw unilaterally from Gaza, we abandoned the "honest broker" role that U.S. governments tried to play for four decades in the Middle East, and we confirmed the conspiratorial suspicions of every anti-American Arab. Our credibility has been battered.

We set out to put fear into the hearts of our enemies by demonstrating the efficacy of a new doctrine of preemptive war. Instead, we have shown the timeless nature of hubris. Last week we announced the transfer of 3,600 troops of the overstrained U.S. Army away from the border of what might be the world's most dangerous country, North Korea. They will be sent to help with the war in Iraq, for which we now acknowledge we had inadequate resources.

Contrary to the Bush administration's stated and implied promises -- "we will be greeted as liberators" was the vice president's famous version -- we did not achieve a relatively low-cost triumph in Iraq. Instead we have a crisis of still-growing dimensions. Our occupation policy has changed as often as the color of Madonna's hair. Ominously, as became clear with last week's assassination of Iraqi Governing Council president Izzedin Salim, we cannot even protect the Iraqis who have agreed to work with us.

The war has damaged the good name of the United States in every corner of the globe, has cost unanticipated scores of billions (all of it borrowed) and now threatens long-term damage to our Army and National Guard. War has already disfigured the 3,500 American families whose sons and daughters have been killed or seriously wounded in Iraq, and countless Iraqi families as well.

The United States gets itself into this kind of trouble when it turns away from that most fundamental of American values, pragmatism. The Bush administration's initial reaction to the first attacks on U.S. soil since the War of 1812 was highly pragmatic. It identified the source of the attack and went after it forcefully, with the country's and the world's enthusiastic support.

But even before the war in Afghanistan was won, pragmatism yielded to ideology, and Bush asked the Pentagon to prepare for "preemptive" war against Iraq. There was no traditional casus belli, no classical justification for war.

The war in Iraq was justified with two arguments that now appear dubious at best. The first was the idea that Iraq was an appropriate and important target in the new war against terror, when the United States had no evidence tying Saddam Hussein to any recent terrorism apart from the rewards he paid to the families of suicide bombers in Israel and other Palestinian "martyrs." The second was that Iraqi weapons of mass destruction threatened the United States, its allies and the entire Middle East region, but of course, those weapons have never been found.

It will take years to sort out all that went wrong in Iraq, but in a general way, an explanation is already available. The Bush administration was on notice months before 9/11 about the risks and requirements of deploying our forces for military action abroad, and it defied the warnings. They were contained in a most pragmatic memorandum from Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld to President Bush. Rumsfeld wrote the memo in March 2001, at the very beginning of the new administration. Bob Woodward's 2002 book, "Bush At War," quotes briefly from it. The entire document, which Woodward provided, is haunting reading. Excerpts:

* "In fashioning a clear statement of the underpinning for the action, avoid arguments of convenience. They can be useful at the outset to gain support, but they will be deadly later."

* "There should be clear, well-considered and well-understood goals as to the purpose of the engagement and what would constitute success . . ."

* "The military capabilities needed to achieve the agreed goals must be available . . . "

* "Before committing to an engagement, consider the implications of the decision for the U.S. in other parts of the world . . . . Think through the precedent that a proposed action, or inaction, would establish."

* "Finally -- honesty: U.S. leadership must be brutally honest with itself, the Congress, the public and coalition partners. Do not make the effort sound even marginally easier or less costly than it could become. Preserving U.S. credibility requires that we promise less, or no more, than we are sure we can deliver. It is a great deal easier to get into something than to get out of it!"

In other words, Rumsfeld laid out the standards for a serious, pragmatic strategy. The only obviously missing element in his memo was a recognition that military actions inevitably have political components that also require careful planning and shrewd execution.

But when it came time to wage war against Iraq, Rumsfeld ignored his own guidelines. He developed no real strategy for what to do after ousting Saddam Hussein. As James Fallows has reported in the Atlantic Monthly, Rumsfeld actually banned Defense Department officials from participating in CIA- and State Department-led meetings on postwar Iraq. When those meetings produced extensive recommendations, which included warnings about nearly every pitfall we have since fallen into, the Pentagon simply ignored them. We went to war with no political plan for ending it.

As George Will and others have argued, administration policy has been "neoconservative," rather than hard-headed and just plain conservative. A neoconservative believes that certain things must happen, Will wrote, whereas rational conservatives would only say that those things can happen. In his recent column on these subjects, Will pleaded for more reliance on empirical evidence -- in other words, on pragmatism: "This administration needs a dose of conservatism without the prefix."

One prominent member of the empirical school on Iraq is retired Marine Gen. Anthony C. Zinni. From 1997 to 2000, Zinni was the commander in chief of U.S. Central Command, the job held by Army Gen. Tommy R. Franks in the recent war, and by Army Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Early in this administration, Zinni was Bush's envoy for the Middle East peace process. As a consultant to the CIA, he retained his access to top secret intelligence until shortly before the Iraq war began.

For reasons he feels have been confirmed by events over the last 14 months, Zinni opposed the war in Iraq. He said the United States was successfully containing Saddam Hussein. Speaking to the Center for Defense Information on May 14, Zinni laid out America's "ten crucial mistakes" in Iraq. Four are particularly noteworthy:

* "The strategy was flawed. I couldn't believe what I was hearing about the benefits of this strategic move -- that the road to Jerusalem [i.e., to an Israeli-Palestinian peace] led through Baghdad, when just the opposite is true . . . [Or] the idea that we will walk in and be met with open arms . . . The idea that strategically we will reform, reshape and change the Middle East by this action -- we've changed it all right! All those that believed this [war] was going to be the catalyst for some kind of positive change . . . didn't understand the region, the culture, the situation and the issues."

* "We had to create a false rationale for going in to get public support. . . . The books were cooked, in my mind. The intelligence was not there . . . . The rationale that we faced an imminent threat, or a serious threat, was ridiculous."

* "We underestimated the task. And I think those of us that knew that region, former commanders in chief . . . beginning with General Schwarzkopf, have said you don't understand what you're getting into [in Iraq] . . . . I can't understand why there was an underestimation when you look at a country that has never known democracy, that has been in the condition it's been in, that has the natural fault lines that it has, and the issues it has. And to look at the task of reconstructing this country, not only reconstructing it, but the idea of creating Jeffersonian democracy almost overnight, is almost ridiculous, in concept . . ."

* "We failed . . . to internationalize the effort." The first President Bush, Zinni said, set an admirable standard by insisting on a U.N. resolution and a broad international coalition before launching war against Iraq in Kuwait in 1991. "Why would we believe that we would not get [similar international support] this time?. . . . And what was the rush to war?"

Last week, the administration remained bogged down in its Iraq swamp, not yet ready -- as it surely will have to be in the days or weeks ahead -- to confront what threatens to be a terminal crisis for George W. Bush. Tinkering won't fix the problem; the administration is going to have to alter its course. This may require embracing the pragmatism that has often saved us from our worst mistakes in the past.

The events of the last few weeks recall the trauma of February and March in 1968, when Americans were absorbing the impact of the Tet Offensive in Vietnam. Tet was a brilliant military campaign that won no lasting military benefit for the Vietnamese communists who executed it, but which humiliated an ignorant, over-confident America and destroyed political support for the war in the United States.

Dean Acheson and Clark Clifford, two principal architects of "containment" -- the basis of American foreign policy toward Soviet and Chinese communists from Truman to Johnson and beyond -- told their friend and president, Lyndon B. Johnson, that the jig was up. The costs of war in Vietnam were too high to justify its continuation.

Soon afterward Johnson announced he would not seek reelection, and he asked the Vietnamese communists to negotiate peace. Exploiting antiwar sentiment, Richard M. Nixon won the presidency in 1968. His vanity and that of his principal aide, Henry A. Kissinger, prevented an early end to the war. They insisted on a "decent interval" before acknowledging defeat in Vietnam. It took seven more years, and tens of thousands of American and Vietnamese lives, to bring the war to an end.

Acheson, Clifford and Johnson -- and ultimately, Nixon and Kissinger -- accepted the idea that losing Vietnam would not be a disaster. In retrospect, we can say they were right. Today we cannot know the consequences of any of the choices we may make in Iraq. We can only hope that the end won't be so long in coming this time.

Author's e-mail:

robertgkaiser@yahoo.com

Robert Kaiser is associate editor and senior correspondent of The Post.

A goal met: The 1991 Persian Gulf War ended after the U.S. military accomplished its objective of driving Iraq's forces out of Kuwait. The first President Bush resisted suggestions to pursue the Iraqis to Baghdad. On March 3, 1991, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf met with Iraqi commanders in Safwan for cease-fire talks.