As Iraq descends into something resembling chaos, it's hard to remember how grand, even orderly, the plans for its future once were. I had a glimpse of those plans last January in Baghdad as I interviewed L. Paul Bremer in his dusty office at the center of Saddam Hussein's old Republican Palace. I asked Bremer, who was then midway through his tenure as America's viceroy in Iraq, whether what he was attempting was unprecedented. Perhaps it was, he said, but the model he was using was the resurrection of post-Hitler Germany.

Bremer, a historian by training, then reached over to his desk for a thick briefing book that laid out detailed timelines for the development of each Iraqi ministry. He pointed out a chart that he consulted more than any other: "MILESTONES: Iraq and Germany." It laid out the handover of state institutions during the 1945-52 occupation of Germany, side by side with corresponding plans for Iraq over a more compressed period. That way, Bremer said, he could "keep track of where we are versus Germany." The U.S. occupation embraced that model so completely that officials lifted whole passages from Marshall Plan-era documents in designing the future of Iraq -- once forgetting, in a section dealing with currency, to change "Reichsmark" to "dinar."

The administration's ultimate endgame in Iraq was -- and still is, if judged by rhetoric alone -- to emulate in the heart of the Arab world the amazing transformation of Germany in the heart of Europe. It was to convert a fierce enemy into a loyal ally, a regional security threat into a bulwark of regional security. Today, faced with worsening violence, administration officials tend to emphasize how hard a task the postwar rebirth of Germany was (though there was no real insurgency, and by 1948 the "German Miracle" was well underway). When I asked one White House official recently about the troubles in Iraq, he too harked back to postwar Germany. He quoted Dwight D. Eisenhower as saying in June 1945, "The success of this occupation can only be judged 50 years from now." Like Germany, Iraq is a "generational project," this official said.

But if the administration is rhetorically projecting ahead a generation, its own plans for Iraq do not go beyond the next two years -- and never did. Its strategy calls for a national legislature to be elected in January, a constitutional convention a few months later and a permanent government by the end of 2005. The Pentagon has also outlined a rotation plan for U.S. troops in Iraq extending to October 2006. Yet it has not laid out an exit strategy for troops, arguing that to do so would encourage the insurgents, and administration officials have not made clear what the benchmarks of success would be. American troops, after all, are still deployed in Germany -- and that was considered a great triumph. When it comes to laying out longer-term plans for Iraq, "there is a deafening silence from the administration," Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said recently. "Incredible rhetoric, deafening silence."

Americans must begin to penetrate that silence by reckoning with some grim realities about the Iraqi endgame. The first is that there is no prospect of "winning" in Iraq, at least none that even remotely resembles the administration's rhetoric. The German model has become part of what Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Republican critic of the war, has called the "grand illusion" of Iraqi progress. Indeed, far from following the path of America's postwar triumph in Germany, the administration's approach on the ground is closely tracking one of America's greatest foreign policy follies: Vietnamization. That was the name for President Richard Nixon's disastrous policy of handing off the war to the ill-prepared South Vietnamese army and a thinly legitimate government in Saigon, so that U.S. troops could come home. Now the Bush administration is hanging its hopes on Iraqification, the propping up of equally unprepared Iraqi forces in hopes that we can ready them in time to forestall defeat long enough to withdraw.

This dramatic downshift in U.S. ambitions for Iraq continues a pattern of gradually lowered expectations dating almost from the beginning of the "postwar" insurgency. In the first months of Bremer's tenure as head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, in the spring and summer of 2003, he doggedly followed the German protocol -- a new constitution guaranteeing rights first, then voting, and only after that sovereignty. He and his superiors back in Washington largely ignored festering Shiite demands for national elections and marginalized Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq's most prestigious Shiite cleric, as well as the Iraqi Governing Council that Bremer himself had created. Instead, the Pentagon hoped that a secular pro-U.S. ally like Ahmed Chalabi would be neatly installed and accede to American demands for a permanent U.S. base in Iraq, much as the Germans did in Europe.

But the bloody autumn of 2003 produced a panicky turnabout in Bremer's plans, and a new set of benchmarks for success. Sovereignty would now come first, and on an accelerated schedule. The new model was, oddly enough, Afghanistan. Although before the war Pentagon officials talked of how sophisticated and educated the Iraqis were compared with Afghans, now the Iraqis would engage in a loya jirga-like assembly process. The unpopular Chalabi was dropped by the White House, and Sistani went from being a meddlesome cleric in U.S. eyes to a doted-upon kingpin, who, it was hoped, could prove to be a benign unifying force like President Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan.

Today even those scaled-down hopes for Iraq's endgame have receded and given way to the Vietnamization strategy. Now new benchmarks for "success" are needed -- and unpalatable accommodations about the shape of Iraq's future government will need to be made. There are, of course, many differences between Vietnam circa 1970 and Iraq in 2004, but the similarities are all too worrying. Both Vietnamization and Iraqification were prompted by flagging public support for the war at home and a rising tide of American blood. Even more troubling, Iraqi insurgents seem to be consciously taking a page from North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh's book. The Iraqi insurgents' strategy, like the Vietcong's, is to kill Americans, undermine U.S. support for the war and thus hasten U.S. withdrawal. By attacking police recruits and seeking to foment enough chaos to force the cancellation or postponement of the U.S.-orchestrated elections, they also target the very things the United States is trying to establish.

And the insurgents seem to be getting what they want. They aren't trying to win the peace; their "successes" are measured in car bombs and corpses. Earlier this month U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, whose participation in the coming elections is considered crucial, said he doubted the voting could be carried out. "You cannot have credible elections if the security conditions continue as they are now," he said. Annan was stating the obvious: How can free elections be held in towns that can't be entered safely? But his bleak assessment also handed a strategic objective to the Iraqi insurgents, while making U.S. success, even in its own rapidly depreciating terms, less likely.

What remains of Bremer's plans today is an Iraq verging on civil war, with U.S. forces in the middle of it. The insurgency appears to be evolving slowly into a violent jockeying for power in post-occupation Iraq, mainly led by groups that have little to gain from elections, like Sunni extremists. They're not likely to be dissuaded by the "outreach" efforts interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi touted during his visit here last week.

In Washington, there are reports of a planned post-U.S. election offensive by American forces to clean out the Sunni sanctuaries, opening the way to January elections. But that too echoes the Vietnamization strategy: Nixon's secret bombing of Cambodia and its Vietnamese sanctuaries in March 1969, two months into his term. Nixon's bombing, of course, went on and on, and so did the war, until the Americans lost the country. In the case of Iraq, insurgent militias are so entrenched in their enclaves that such a strategy smacks of destroying the cities in order to save them (Vietnam again). Hundreds of innocents will almost certainly be killed, prompting new outcries for U.S. withdrawal.

It is far from certain that the Iraqi endgame must follow the course of Vietnam all the way to its disastrous end. So far, U.S. casualties in Iraq amount to nothing like the numbers seen in Vietnam. While public support for the war in Iraq has eroded, opposition still doesn't compare to the antiwar sentiment during the later stages of the Vietnam War. In contrast to the corrupt government of South Vietnam of the early 1970s, the new governmental process set in motion by Bremer still has considerable legitimacy, and many influential Iraqis, such as Sistani, say they want to see it succeed. The insurgents, meanwhile, can boast no Ho Chi Minh, no charismatic, legitimate alternative to the interim government in Baghdad.

But no matter who wins the U.S. elections in November, there is no foreseeable endgame in Iraq that does not include many more American casualties over the next several years. Some analysts are beginning to argue for a quick withdrawal and handoff to Iraqi forces. The Bush administration has been fecklessly glossing over the problems inherent in this option by cooking the numbers on Iraqi readiness. Last February Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said during a trip to Baghdad that there were more than 210,000 Iraqis serving in the security forces. But earlier this month, he said the number of fully trained and equipped Iraqi forces was 95,000. (Even that is probably inflated.) In reality, the best-case projection for a fully ready Iraqi army, civil defense and constabulary is probably two to three years off.

In the interim, a U.S. withdrawal would almost certainly lead to civil war, turning Iraq into a failed state and a haven for Islamic jihadists. That would be a devastating, Vietnam-like blow to U.S. prestige and foil Bush's stated objective of transforming the Mideast. Worse yet, it would hand Osama bin Laden his sweetest victory in the war on terrorism; in his taped messages since the late '90s, he has reveled in comparing the Americans to the Soviets, insisting that the U.S. superpower would be defeated like the Soviets in Afghanistan.

What does "winning" mean in Iraq? For U.S. troops, it means just surviving. But even quagmires can be managed. For the administration, winning means discarding the German model and adopting one that in the best case looks more like Bosnia, where U.S. and NATO forces today act as quasi-permanent control rods to prevent the kind of chain reaction of violence that leads to civil war. It means acknowledging that we must plan for a large U.S.-dominated occupation force that could remain there for several years at least, and we must spend tens of billions of dollars more than the Bush administration is doing now. If we don't, the next rotation into Iraq could begin to "break" the Army, one general worries, provoking an exodus of the military's professional officer corps.

Confronting reality in Iraq, and reducing expectations, also means backing whatever sources of stability we can find, even if they are anti-American. This may be the only way to salvage the minimal goal of leaving behind an Iraq that does not threaten us or its neighbors. That means, effectively, two options. One is a "little Saddam," a strongman who can consolidate control through non-democratic means. The other is to pursue a democracy largely shaped by anti-American mullahs, hopefully somewhat moderate ones like Sistani. What's not available any longer is the Iraqi equivalent of Konrad Adenauer, the German politician who was jailed by the Nazis and who later, after becoming the first chancellor of West Germany, nurtured good relations with France and the United States. Even Allawi must defer to Sistani. Washington must swallow the likelihood that Iraq will enter some drawn-out Islamic phase before it ever turns into a secular democratic model.

For the Americans who went to war in Iraq hoping for historic change, those options are pretty much all that's left on the table. That is what "winning" in Iraq will look like for years to come. It's the best we can do right now, even if it looks like losing.

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Michael Hirsh is a senior editor at Newsweek and author of "At War With Ourselves; Why America is Squandering Its Chance to Build a Better World" (Oxford University Press).

Ruined plans: Officials once based U.S. strategy for postwar Iraq on the successful occupation of postwar Germany, but they found the German model didn't apply. Above, the view along the Pegnitz River in Nuremberg when Allied troops captured the city in April 1945.