A fundamental contradiction lies at the heart of President Bush's approach to addressing the threat posed by violent radical Islam. The essential problem -- vividly on display in Iraq -- is the classic one of a mismatch between means and ends. Although the United States possesses easily the world's best-equipped and most competent armed forces, its existing military capabilities are insufficient to implement the strategy to which the president committed the nation after 9/11.
In response to that awful day, Mr. Bush embarked upon a "global war on terror." From the outset, both the president and his key aides made clear their expectation that this war was not likely to end any time soon. They depicted it as an immense enterprise, to be conducted over a period of many years, if not decades -- perhaps even generations.
The essence of the administration's existing plan to win that war is this: Through the application of overwhelming and irresistible armed might, to assert for the U.S. a position of unquestioned dominance, thereby enabling it over time to eliminate the conditions breeding violent Islamic radicalism in the first place. Hard power skillfully employed (or threatened), supplemented by patient exertions aimed at dragging the dysfunctional nations of the Greater Middle East into modernity, will transform the entire region. Once transformed, the region will be at peace and will no longer pose a danger to our own security.
From the outset, some critics (I include myself in this camp) viewed this strategy as fundamentally flawed, informed as much by ideological flights of fancy as by sober analysis. In Iraq, these critics see their worst fears becoming reality. There, the transformation project has stalled. What was intended to be a brief, decisive incursion -- a demonstration project revealing the shape of things to come -- has become a debilitating stalemate.
With the election of 2004 now history, the time is ripe for President Bush to reassess his initial strategy and to chart a new course. During the Civil War, President Lincoln did precisely this when events in the field dashed expectations that one quick victory might restore the Union. So too did President Truman during the Korean War when the Chinese intervention confronted him with a radically different conflict. In the midst of crisis, entertaining first-order questions demands courage, but great statesmen dare not flinch from the requirement.
But even if such a reassessment leaves the president convinced that his initial conception of an open-ended global war remains sound, he can ill-afford to ignore the mounting evidence that we currently lack the wherewithal to accomplish all that he (and his successors) will be obliged to do if they intend to "win."
If it is indeed a global war that Mr. Bush intends to wage, then that war is certain to require far more boots on the ground than existing U.S. forces can muster. Iraq has amply exposed the limits of "shock and awe." Even today, in what is surely still the preliminary stages of its contest to overcome the Islamist threat, the United States has too few soldiers doing too many things. The prospect of the armed services being called upon to take on even heavier burdens tomorrow is a real one. To state the matter plainly: We are overextended.
The choice facing President Bush is a stark one. Either he must modify his strategy to conform to the resources at hand, a process that ought to begin with questioning whether waging "global war" promises a solution to the problems brought home by 9/11. This implies looking to something besides force to achieve our aims.
Or the president must use the mandate recently won at the polls to expand the U.S. military. No doubt increasing the size of the armed forces implies exacting sacrifices of the American people. But there is no waging a global war without first mobilizing the nation. Although attaching yellow-ribbon decals to the back end of our SUVs makes for a nice gesture, those actually fighting this war would benefit more from a multi-division increase in the size of the U.S. Army.
Reconciling strategic ends and means is today the paramount issue facing the United States. Prior to Nov. 2, political calculations might have suggested the desirability of postponing a decision. But those considerations no longer pertain. If in winning a second term the president accrued political capital, here is where he ought to expend it. Three years into Mr. Bush's global war on terror, the time for dithering is long past. It's time to choose.