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Not the Sun King after all

ON THREE occasions in the past four years the United States has suffered catastrophic failure. Since each of these disasters -- 9/11, the Iraq quagmire, and now Hurricane Katrina -- occurred on George W. Bush's watch, many Americans hold the president personally responsible.

But hammering Bush amounts to an exercise in scapegoating that lets others -- starting with ourselves -- off the hook.

In fact, the underlying explanation for these calamities lies in the delusions to which Americans in recent years have readily subscribed. The defining ''truths" of the age have turned out to be anything but true.

When communism collapsed in 1989, Americans naively believed the world had been transformed, profoundly and irrevocably. History itself had supposedly ended. Democratic capitalism had triumphed, settling the last really big questions. With nothing left to fight about, inhabitants of the ''new world order" would tend to more mundane concerns: for some, the creation of wealth; for others, consumption.

The Cold War segued into the so-called Information Age. Thanks to the computer and the Internet, knowledge was ostensibly empowering the individual as never before. Americans were told and naively believed that in a networked world risk, uncertainty, and surprise were becoming obsolete. At long last, man controlled his own destiny.

Furthermore, as it entered this Information Age, the United States occupied a position of unrivaled preeminence. Economically, technologically, and above all militarily dominant, the United States claimed for itself the mantle of ''indispensable nation." Americans were told and naively believed that permanent and unquestioned global primacy was theirs for the taking. The Unipolar Moment was at hand.

Embodying this claim to supremacy was the presidency itself. By the 1990s, the only office that mattered was the Oval Office. Surrounded by courtiers and sycophants, his every gesture recorded, his every word parsed, the president became a cyber-age version of the Sun King. However naively, Americans attributed to ''the most powerful man in the world" something approaching omnipotence.

Events have exposed each of these notions as fraudulent. If history ever ended, it resumed with a vengeance on 9/11. Disputes over identity, culture, and religion suppressed during the Cold War erupted in its aftermath. There remain all sorts of things to fight about.

Meanwhile, a succession of surprises -- Manhattan attacked in broad daylight, weapons of mass destruction that turned out to be nonexistent, government agencies caught flat-footed by a storm they had tracked for days -- has shredded the pretensions of the Information Age. All the billions spent on surveillance systems, high-speed communications, video-conferencing, and computer models have neither enhanced Washington's ability to anticipate events nor have they enabled senior officials to accurately gauge the consequences of US actions. The increased volume of information available has not yielded sound judgment nor has it provided an antidote to ineptitude.

As for the indispensable nation, far from standing astride the world, the United States, hemorrhaging red ink, is today desperately seeking breathing space to reconstitute itself. Iraq was conceived as a short war, producing a quick victory. Instead, it has become a tar-baby that has left the mystique of the American military establishment in tatters.

Hurricane Katrina, meanwhile, has exposed the dirty little secret of a supposedly classless society: While many Americans enjoy affluence or at least decency, others subsist in squalor and neglect.

Finally, there is the cult of the presidency: Notwithstanding the ongoing imperial masquerade in America's Emerald City on the Potomac, it turns out that the chief executive has about as much control over events as Dorothy's wizard.

The problem is not with this particular incumbent, but with wildly over-inflated expectations of what any president can actually accomplish.

Could a fourth catastrophe be waiting in the wings?

Certainly, there are plenty of plausible candidates: the permanent end of ''cheap" oil, a WMD attack anywhere in North America, the ''Big One" in California, to name just a few. The prospect of such an event ought to concentrate the mind. Reducing the likelihood of such a catastrophe or limiting the damage should it occur requires first that Americans shed the delusions to which they have fallen prey. Otherwise, like the sucker who keeps going back for another bottle of snake oil, we will have only ourselves to blame.

Andrew J. Bacevich, professor of international relations at Boston University, is the author of ''The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War."

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