IT WAS the neo-conservatives' magic solution: an invasion of Iraq that would rid the world of the odious Saddam Hussein, sow the seeds of democracy in the heart of the Arab world, and hasten the day when Israelis and Palestinians lay down like lion and lamb in peace together.
Just over five months since American troops and their British allies rolled north over the Kuwaiti border, those overblown ambitions lie close to ruin. Iraq is theatre to a guerrilla war that the mightiest military power in history cannot suppress. In fact, it can't even ensure the supply of water and electricity to the country's ever more exasperated population.
As for the "road-map" to peace in the Middle East, the prescribed path is heading over the edge of a cliff. A seven-week ceasefire has ended as others before it, in the usual grisly mix of Palestinian suicide bombings and deadly retaliatory attacks against the militants by the Israelis.
In Washington, a president facing re-election barely 12 months hence issues ritual condemnations of terrorism and vows that the United States will not be deflected. But exceedingly tough choices are fast approaching, amid parallels with America's last foreign disaster in Vietnam that, however inexact, can no longer be ignored.
Now, as in the 1960s, the debate is whether to send in more troops. In Vietnam such a decision led the US deeper into a morass; in Iraq today, a major increase in the American force - currently some 140,000 supplemented by 20,000 soldiers from Britain and other coalition countries - is being presented as the one sure way of suppressing the guerrilla resistance and guaranteeing basic public order and public services.
Estimates vary: some say 30,000 to 40,000 additional soldiers will do the trick; others extrapolate from the occupying forces which have presided (on the whole successfully) in Bosnia and Kosovo and talk Vietnam-sized numbers of 300,000 to 500,000 men for the total force. The former was the figure roughly alluded to by the former army chief of staff General Eric Shinseki before the war, for which he was publicly rebuked by his boss Donald Rumsfeld, the Secretary of Defence.
Mr Rumsfeld still refuses to budge, telling Time magazine that the US has "adequate forces" in Iraq. This stance reflects political reality: the last thing Mr Bush wants is a surge in war costs, already running at $4bn a month, as the economy stagnates and his opinion poll ratings slide.
It also reflects a military reality: does the US, whose forces are almost as globally stretched as their British counterparts, have the men available out of a total 490,000 personnel on active duty? And if not, should it (again shades of Vietnam) reinstate the draft?
Nonsense, says Mr Rumsfeld, adamant as ever that the US armed forces need to be modernised, not enlarged. Of one thing however there is no argument: the utter failure of the Pentagon, lured by the siren calls of the neo-conservatives and its pet exiled Iraqi leader Ahmed Chalabi, to plan adequately for the post-war period.
In the meantime American troops continue to die - two more of them over the weekend, raising the total US death toll since the war began on 20 March to 275. Of these fatalities, 138, almost exactly half, have occurred since 1 May, when President Bush declared an end to "major combat operations", 65 of them in an intensifying guerrilla war.
Each day sees a dozen or so attacks. But as occupying forces, American troops have a duty to protect Iraqi civilians as well as themselves. Major William Thurmond, the Allied spokesman in Baghdad, points out: "We can't indiscriminately use the firepower at our disposal."
In other words, the most sophisticated weaponry in the world is no substitute for professional peace-keepers, police and other specialists needed to rebuild countries. Not just the Pentagon …