WASHINGTON - As he took questions from reporters last night, President Bush might be forgiven for asking one himself: How in the world did I get in this fix?
Bush spoke in the past tense when he said he wished Saddam Hussein had disarmed. A U.S. attack appears inevitable and could begin soon: "After next week," Bush indicated, when "the last phase of diplomacy" is over.
Once bombs start flying, the lives of a quarter-million American men and women in uniform could be at risk. The fate of Bush's presidency already is.
Also on the line: the global influence of the United States in this post-Cold War era. For Bush and the country, the stakes are enormous.
But at a time when everything was supposed to be coming together, militarily and diplomatically, for a U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, things seem to be coming apart.
The war now would be launched in the face of strong opposition from nearly all of America's most powerful allies, most of world opinion and a sharply divided U.S. public.
Except for Britain and Australia, every other nation has shied away from contributing a sizable contingent of troops.
Tensions are rising in Asia, where a nuclear crisis in North Korea continues to brew. At home, uncertainties about Iraq and the rising price of oil are stifling investment and hurting an already shaky economy.
"I am spending a lot of time on our economy. This is a period of uncertainty. ... I understand that," Bush told reporters this week.
He didn't need to add that his White House is haunted by the defeat of his father in 1992, widely blamed on the perception that the first President Bush lost touch with the economic problems of ordinary Americans.
But it is Iraq that has preoccupied the president, the nation and the world in recent weeks, and which probably will set the direction for the second half of Bush's term.
Having come this far in building up U.S. forces in the Near East, analysts say, the damage to America's standing in the region, and around the world, could be even greater if Bush fails to move militarily against Hussein.
Backing away now "would erode our credibility for a significant period of time," said Morton Abramowitz, a former State Department intelligence official who was U.S. ambassador to Turkey during the Persian Gulf war of 1991.
Time has worked against Bush's efforts to rally other nations behind his drive for military action, the veteran diplomat noted.
The failure of international weapons inspectors to turn up a "smoking gun" in Iraq over the past few months has strengthened the hand of those who say the United States has failed to prove that Hussein represents an immediate threat.
But the objections to Bush's war plans from Russia, France and Germany go beyond the immediate question of what to do about Hussein.
Instead, they reflect the administration's failure to amass political capital in Moscow, Paris and Berlin over the past two years - and growing concern overseas that the United States under Bush has been arrogantly throwing its weight around.
The president ducked a question on that topic last night. But earlier in the week he touched on some of the reasons that international opinion has swung against the United States.
In an interview with The Sun and other newspapers, Bush conceded that many around the world are "still mad" about his administration's opposition to the Kyoto treaty on global warming and its refusal to let the United States join the International Criminal Court.
Price of war
Looking ahead, Bush and his advisers are expecting a quick war, one that would last at most a few weeks, with light casualties. As for the price tag, it is a subject that Bush resolutely declined to discuss last night.
"The price of doing nothing exceeds the price of taking action if we have to," was all he would say.
But earlier in the day, Bush's new Treasury secretary, John Snow, seemed to play down the expense as an economic factor. "The cost of the war is a one-time sort of thing," he told a group of reporters.
But beyond the cost of the war, estimated at upward of $100 billion, is the longer-term expense of replacing Hussein and attempting to run Iraq effectively, a subject Bush also has yet to address in detail but one fraught with uncertainty.
To bring stability to Iraq's disparate ethnic groups and install the democratic government Bush says he wants to establish will almost certainly require years of military occupation, much, if not most of it, by U.S. forces.
Critics worry that a U.S. invasion will prompt even more Islamic terrorism around the globe. Bush counters that overthrowing Hussein will put other countries that support terrorists on notice that they could be next.
Bush is also gambling, in the face of widespread skepticism, that rebuilding Iraq will lead to progress elsewhere in the Middle East, including solving the Arab-Israeli conflict.
That sort of wider success would give U.S. prestige an enormous boost in foreign capitals and restore some of the luster to Bush's leadership that has faded over the past few months.
"The strength of his presidency has been as a leader on 9/11 and is associated with that crisis," said Charles O. Jones, a presidential scholar and emeritus professor at the University of Wisconsin.
In Iraq, he added, Bush is preparing to attempt something entirely new in the war against terrorism: an attack on a country that is not a response to an attack either on us or one of its neighbors. It will be the first test of Bush's policy of pre-emption, which seeks to anticipate threats and remove them, by force if necessary.
"One of the marks of leadership is looking forward - in Bush's own words, 'thinking ahead of the moment.' And that's what he's trying to do," said Jones. "But the risks associated with that are certainly substantial."
Impact on economy
For months, uncertainty over a possible war in Iraq has been blamed for weakness in the American economy.
Government officials anticipate that once the war is over, the stock market will rebound, companies will be more willing to make new investments and the economic recovery will gain fresh momentum.
If that happens, and terrorism is held at bay, Bush could find himself in the same lofty league as Ronald Reagan, the most successful Republican president in recent history and the one Bush's aides like to compare him with.
Democrats, though, say Bush is starting to remind them of one of their own: Jimmy Carter, whose presidency fell victim to foreign policy entanglements in the Persian Gulf and a faltering economy at home.
Is Bush the next Reagan, or another Carter? At the moment, with problems piling up and American troops poised for war, no one, including the president, can know the answer.