ANOTHER RENDING week of violence in Iraq has underlined the critical challenge that confronts the Bush administration: Unless it can find ways to improve security in the coming weeks, its larger strategy for the country, which begins with elections planned for January, may unravel. Senior Iraqi officials, American generals and U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan all have warned in recent days that nationwide elections won't be possible in the present conditions. Iraqi insurgents effectively control several large towns, and a daily barrage of car bombs, ambushes, kidnappings and mortar attacks makes peaceful political activity impossible in Baghdad and other government-controlled areas. President Bush must soon make tough decisions about whether to launch potentially costly military operations or compromise what may be the last chance for a successful political outcome.

Yet Mr. Bush, who spent the week campaigning for reelection, has offered scant acknowledgment of the quandary he faces or of the worsening state of a mission that has dominated more than half of his first term. His description of Iraq is bland to the point of dishonesty: "Despite ongoing acts of violence," he repeated Friday, "that country has a strong prime minister, they've got a national council and they are going to have elections in January of 2005." Not only has Mr. Bush not said how, or whether, he intends to respond to the worsening situation; he doesn't really admit it exists.

This duck-and-cover strategy may have its political advantages, but it is also deeply irresponsible and potentially dangerous. As conservative Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) put it last week, "the worst thing we can do is hold ourselves hostage to some grand illusion that we're winning. Right now, we are not winning. Things are getting worse."

"Grand illusions" have too often guided Mr. Bush in Iraq. We believed the president was right to confront the threat posed by Saddam Hussein, and like the vast majority of Iraqis, we welcomed the removal of that murderous regime. Yet even before the war it seemed to us that Mr. Bush was failing to recognize or prepare for the fact that the postwar reconstruction of Iraq would be long, difficult and dangerous. He ignored those in his administration who warned of the likely challenges. Instead, he handed control over postwar Iraq to a Pentagon leadership convinced that a government centered on former exiles could quickly be established.

When that plan failed, the administration shifted to another unrealistic course, based on a prolonged reconstruction of the country under a MacArthur-like administrator. More sensible proposals to internationalize that administration were ignored, and it was many months before U.S. officials finally recognized and listened to genuine Iraqi leaders and agreed to the present plan for elections. Yet even now there is no evident acknowledg- ment of realities on the ground. American commanders and their Pentagon superiors have repeatedly underestimated the Iraqi resistance, stubbornly resisted additional deployments of troops despite an obvious need and failed to restructure aid programs so that the billions appropriated by Congress could be spent. Reports that Iraqi prisoners were mistreated were brushed off until a damaging scandal erupted.

Too often American soldiers and commanders have been flung into the breach between illusion and reality. Many have responded with great courage and creativity, and they can point to many accomplishments that receive little attention back home. But more than 1,000 have died, thousands more as well have paid a terrible cost and no end to these losses is in sight.

Whatever his rhetoric, Mr. Bush deserves to be judged by this record. In our view, it is one of courage in setting goals and steadfastness in sticking to them but also one of extraordinary recklessness and incompetence in execution. It may be that the current disorder in Iraq was inevitable following a U.S. invasion and that a wiser approach could not have prevented it. Yet we believe Mr. Bush could have achieved much more. Now he tells voters he will stay the course; the way to make that promise convincing is to be honest with Americans about the challenge he now faces -- and to lay out a realistic response to it.