"If Jefferson provided the essential poetry of American political discourse, Hamilton established the prose of American statecraft."

-- Ron Chernow,

"Alexander Hamilton"

This week the president, in an agreeably prosaic frame of mind, turned U.S. policy in Iraq in a direction for which Americans are ready. An astonishing number of them are reading Chernow's 818-page biography -- 356,000 copies are in print -- of "the intellectual spoilsport among the founding fathers."

Hamilton was that, Chernow says, because he "regularly violated what became the first commandment of American politics: thou shalt always be optimistic when addressing the electorate. . . . He was incapable of the resolutely uplifting themes that were to become mandatory in American politics. The first great skeptic of American exceptionalism, he refused to believe that the country was exempt from the sober lessons of history."

Much presidential optimism is mandatory, particularly when a war is not going well. But Jeffersonian optimism has been a source of some difficulties.

Some say that U.S. policy toward Iraq primarily needs a military success akin to what saved Lincoln politically when things were going badly in 1864 -- the capture of Atlanta. But what Iraq event could be analogous? And remember: The general who marched, as the song says, "from Atlanta to the sea" did so using tactics that anticipated the "total war" of the next century. Are we ready to do that in Iraq?

It took the 16th president several years to find subordinates competent for his Civil War challenges. Is the 43rd president looking for some more able aides, or is he satisfied with those he has?

In 1962 Casey Stengel, managing the expansion New York Mets to a record 120 losses, looked down the dugout and asked, "Can't anyone here play this game?" Last week's blizzard of accusations against Ahmed Chalabi, once the pinup of some in the Bush administration, is fresh evidence of a disarray, as much in Washington as in Baghdad, that strikes at the roots of Republican strength.

Conservatives are not supposed to be especially nice. They are bleak, flinty people given to looking facts in the face; hence, they are prone to pessimism. But their competence supposedly compensates for their not being cuddly.

It is perhaps unfair to say that America's nation-builders are going about it incompetently. That suggests that there is somewhere a reservoir of nation-building competence. But many misadventures in Iraq would be more forgivable if they did not flow from an ideology.

They flow from the Jeffersonian poetry of democratic universalism. If everyone yearns for freedom, understood identically everywhere, how hard can building a democratic nation be? Why would many U.S. forces, or much time and treasure, be needed? How about creating Iraqi security forces sufficient to police well-disposed people? A piece of cake. If a natural -- almost spontaneous -- moral consensus, not power, is going to be the regulator of people and of relations among nations, then of course politics will be easy.

In "Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush's War Cabinet," James Mann of the Center for Strategic and International Studies shows how thoroughly Bush's national security team was shaped by the recoil against the Vietnam Syndrome -- by the post-Vietnam challenge of reconstructing the military and restoring faith in its ability to usefully project power. Thus preoccupied, they gave insufficient thought to the perils of victories, such as those with which America is now dealing.

Furthermore, they took up the post-Cold War challenge of defining a new rationale for this rehabilitated military. This turned their minds toward using the sole remaining superpower's power to spread Jeffersonian poetry.

In domestic policy Americans are rhetorical Jeffersonians, praising small government, but they are operational Hamiltonians. In foreign policy they sing Jeffersonian lyrics, but they know -- or are learning -- what Kansas Republican Pat Roberts knows. Roberts, chairman of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee and a conservative of the traditional Midwestern sort, says:

"We need to restrain what are growing U.S. messianic instincts -- a sort of global social engineering where the United States feels it is both entitled and obligated to promote democracy -- by force if necessary. . . . Liberty cannot be laid down like so much AstroTurf."

Actually, those messianic instincts are weakening, rapidly. Call this the Iraq Syndrome. A more Hamiltonian moment may be at hand.

Woodrow Wilson, that geyser of American messianism, called Hamilton "a very great man, but not a great American." However, that is true only if political realism is un-American.

"It is," Chernow wrote five years ago, as he began composing his biography, "an auspicious time to re-examine the life of Hamilton." Chernow did not realize how auspicious.

georgewill@washpost.com