WASHINGTON -- Four years after Americans were swept into an ominous new era of global terrorism, American troops are fighting an insurgency in Afghanistan and a worsening one in Iraq with no end in sight.
At home, Hurricane Katrina illustrates that these four years may not have greatly improved the government's ability to respond swiftly and effectively to mass destruction.
Islamist terrorists seem able to strike anywhere with impunity, at a time of their choosing.
And the uplifting sense of American purpose and spirit of community after Sept. 11 has corroded into bitter divisiveness over mounting losses in Iraq and finger-pointing over the chaotic response to Katrina.
Small wonder that a growing majority of Americans tell pollsters they feel less secure, less confident that they know what lies ahead, less convinced that there is a plan.
At the heart of these problems, many senior analysts believe, is the failure to construct and articulate a grand strategy for winning the global war on terrorism. This includes protection of Americans at home: a compelling master plan identifying long-term goals and marshaling the nation's resources -- along with citizens' enthusiastic participation -- toward achieving them.
A strategy would prioritize the government's "to-do" list and push resources toward the most urgent items on it, whether that means putting more troops in Iraq or building a computer system for recording the identification of people being evacuated from a disaster zone.
Above all, a strategy would list the goals and explain the road map so everyone could see where the nation is heading.
"Don't just call for American resolve and put it on the armed forces [to achieve]," retired Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark, former NATO commander, told a recent conference here. "The administration needs a strategy for success."
White House officials insist there is a grand strategy. As President Bush phrased it Aug. 23, "In the long run, we will defeat the terrorists through the spread of freedom and democracy."
A little too late
However, Bush came late to that idea as a strategy. The concept does not appear in the National Security Strategy of the United States, which was published three years ago, or in the National Strategy for Combating Terrorism, published two years ago.
Both official documents, required by Congress, were written before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, before Iraq's emergence as a hotbed of violent Islamist extremism, before the acceleration of Iran's nuclear weapons program, and before gaps appeared between the Army's operational commitments in the war and the nation's willingness to volunteer for military duty.
Countering al-Qaida with democracy is fine, but, "there's no articulation of how we are going to apply this principle in practice -- and that's where the rub is: How do you implement this goal in practice?" said Clark A. Murdock, who has served as a strategic planner at the Pentagon, CIA and White House in Republican and Democratic administrations.
There is a plan, insists a senior White House counterterrorism official.
He said there are "underlying plans" to implement the three-pronged strategy designed to protect the homeland, attack terrorists abroad and advance democracy. "Part of the problem," the official added, "is that a lot of this work is going to be done in silence behind the scenes."
But a new report by a group of senior strategists assembled by the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies found after a two-year study that the United States suffers from a weakness of grand strategy. The government, these experts concluded, "lacks both the incentive and the capacity for strategic thinking and long-range planning."
Even those few offices set up to deal with long-range planning, like the State Department's Policy Planning Staff, often become caught up in short-range considerations. And of course, senior officials tend to be swapped out every four years. "Government is an `in box' job; you are driven by the near-term crisis," Murdock said. When things change, when the unexpected happens, "you have no time to think or act strategically."
No grand strategic framework was announced on the eve of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Instead, Bush spoke of one specific goal. "Our mission is very clear: disarmament," Bush said at a March 6 news conference. "And our mission won't change. Our mission is precisely what I just stated."
When no weapons of mass destruction were found, the mission in Iraq soon swung to the radically different goal of building democracy -- a costly, long-term effort for which there had been little practical planning, little weighing of risks and repercussions, and virtually no public debate.
The result, said some analysts, is that the United States has reached a kind of strategic cul-de-sac where its own security depends on achieving a stable political consensus in Iraq's contentious and violent environment.