"Stand back! No, further back, or you'll be swept away by the shock and awe! We're going to show you the full might and majesty of American military power. We're going to... INVADE IRAQ!!!"
It's a bit like one of those backyard scenes where the hapless dad lights the enormous firecracker and retires - and after a long wait it just goes fzzzt. The full panoply of American power was unleashed upon Iraq, and the results have been profoundly unimpressive. This doesn't just mean that the United States loses in Iraq. It means that its leverage elsewhere is severely diminished as well.
But very few people in Washington seem to understand that yet.
American voters have spoken, Congress has changed hands and Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld has been put out to pasture at last, but there is still no plan for getting the U.S. out of the Iraq quagmire - certainly not from the Democrats, who are all over the map on the issue.
Senator Hillary Clinton, the leading contender for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008, doesn't want a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq. Senator John Kerry, the Democratic candidate last time, wants a firm deadline for withdrawal.
Senator Joe Biden, the senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, thinks dividing Iraq in three is the answer. And Congressman John Murtha, who will control the House committee that authorizes the cash for the war, wants an immediate pull-out. So no plan there.
There's no Republican plan yet either, but it is the job of the Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan panel co-chaired by James Baker, former secretary of state during Bush Sr.'s presidency and long-serving confidant of the Bush family, to come up with one.
Its recommendations will be acted on, too, because the new secretary of defense will be Robert Gates, another close friend of the family and currently a member of the Iraq Study Group.
Thanks to various "leaks," we even know broadly what the ISG will recommend.
It will urge a gradual reduction of American troops, with the last combat forces to be out of Iraq in 18 months or so, well before the 2008 elections. And it will tell President Bush to seek cover for this process by talking to Iraq's neighbours, Iran and Syria.
This will be very unwelcome advice for Bush, whose press secretary, Tony Snow, was only two weeks ago warning those two countries to leave Lebanon alone: "We are... concerned by mounting evidence that the Syrian and Iranian governments, Hezbollah and their Lebanese allies are preparing plans to topple Lebanon's democratically elected government.... We're making it clear... that there ought to be hands off the [Lebanese] government...."
But Bush will like it even less when he learns the price that Syria and Iran want for helping.
The problem is that the U.S. is demonstrating every day in Iraq just how ineffective its military power is. It looked so impressive before it was unleashed that the Iranian government secretly offered Washington a general settlement of all the differences between the two countries, very much on America's terms, just before the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003.
The cocky neo-cons rejected that offer out of hand, and now leading Iranians just smile when warned that the U.S. might strike them, too. They know that the U.S. armed forces now regard an attack on Iran with such distaste that the Joint Chiefs of Staff might even resign rather than obey such an order.
So Iran's price for cooperation would be high: an end to the 27-year U.S. trade embargo, full diplomatic relations with Washington, an American commitment not to try to overthrow the Iranian regime - and acceptance of Iran's legal right to develop civil nuclear power under no more than the normal safeguards of the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Would that mean that Iran becomes a "threshold" nuclear weapons power, able to build actual bombs on very short notice? Yes, it would. Pay up or shut up.
And Syria's price? An end to the United Nations' investigation into the Damascus regime's role in the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri last year, U.S. acceptance of a larger role for Hezbollah in the Lebanese government, American commitment not to try to overthrow the Syrian regime - and really serious U.S. pressure on Israel to negotiate the return to Syria of the Golan Heights, which has been occupied by Israel for the past 39 years. Don't want to pay that price? Then find your own way out of Iraq.
The Bush administration will probably balk at paying these prices, which means that the notion of Syria and Iran assisting in a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq is just a fantasy.
Besides, it's not at all clear that either Tehran or Damascus could deliver on any promises they made about Iraq.
It's too far gone in blood and chaos for the usual tools of influence to deliver predictable, reliable results.
Donald Rumsfeld used to have a framed cartoon on his office wall showing him driving in an open car filled with childlike journalists eagerly asking "When do we get to the quagmire, Daddy?" Well, we're there now, Rummy. And the U.S. will probably have to find its own way out.