Something has gone awry in George Bush's White House. The administration's once impermeable self-confidence is beginning to show cracks. A string of blunders has revealed that it is increasingly unsure of itself.
Donald Rumsfeld, the defense secretary, who has epitomized the administration's sense of infallibility, embarrassed himself on a visit to South Asia with speculation about al-Qaida's role in Kashmir which he was quickly forced to retract.
Back home the White House acidly disowned the views of two senior cabinet members - the attorney general, John Ashcroft and the secretary of state, Colin Powell.
The issues at stake could not have been more serious. Mr Rumsfeld was speaking from the hip at the flashpoint of a potential nuclear confrontation. For his part, Mr Ashcroft claimed to have foiled a plot to detonate a "dirty bomb", possibly in central Washington.
As Americans contemplated the prospect of a radioactive cloud drifting over their capital and sent off for anti-radiation pills, the White House press secretary, Ari Fleischer, insisted that the country's top law-enforcement official had over-reached and "lurched to the worst-case scenario".
For good measure, administration officials told journalists that the White House was furious with Mr Ashcroft for overdoing it. It left him looking opportunistic, ready to risk panicking the population to make the arrest of the suspect Abdullah al-Muhajir look more of a coup. And the administration just seemed confused in the face of the terrorist menace.
Then on Wednesday it was the secretary of state's turn to be slapped down. Colin Powell had told the Arabic newspaper al-Hayat that the president would back the rapid establishment of a provisional Palestinian state.
Mr Bush had said almost as much himself, and White House officials confirmed yesterday that a declaration along those lines was expected next week. But Mr Fleischer went out of his way to belittle Mr Powell's observations, pointing out drily that the secretary of state had the "prerogative" to say what he liked.
It was the latest of a string of discordant notes from the White House and the state department on Middle East policy which have sapped Mr Powell's authority. European diplomats who have looked to him as a bastion of US multilateralism now question whether he speaks for the administration.
One diplomat in Washington said: "You get the feeling, more and more, that the real gap is not between us and Powell, but between Powell and the rest of this administration. There is more of a suggestion of incoherence now."
Mr Bush can still claim a 70% approval rating, but amid the patriotism there are signs that the administration could be losing its touch at home.
The inability of the president's counter-terrorist adviser, Tom Ridge, to restructure the country's civil defenses forced the White House to do what it had initially refused to do: create a new government department for homeland security.
Leaks are the norm for most administrations, but they are new in a team which has prided itself on loyalty and unity of purpose. It is the team which forced through a massive tax cut, the centerpiece of its domestic agenda, oversaw the rapid military victory over the Taliban, and achieved a striking diplomatic triumph by securing Russian acquiescence in its plan to build a missile defense system.
"By the standards of American presidential administrations [they] have been pretty together. They show devotion to their leader to a degree that is almost shocking," Stephen Hess, a political analyst at the Brookings Institution, said.
But after 18 months in office, two telling policy failures have knocked the administration off balance. Furthermore, the ideological sense of mission which propelled it through its first year is now proving a handicap, making it harder to cope with a set of complex problems.
The military campaign in Afghanistan drove out the Taliban much faster than the Pentagon's critics had predicted, but it failed to achieve the primary war aim of eliminating al-Qaida. Only one of the organization's leaders has been confirmed killed, and one captured. Osama bin Laden and scores of his lieutenants are believed to be still at large and it is the US, not al-Qaida, that is on the defensive.
The alerts raised by the justice department have ranged from the bizarre (a warning about terrorist scuba divers) to the plain terrifying, (the "dirty bomb" scare). The administration increasingly seems to be fueling rather than managing a climate of fear, and opinion polls suggest that more and more Americans believe the timing of its announcements is determined as much by politics as by security concerns.
The second big policy failure is in the Middle East, where again a military-led policy has fallen far short of achieving US goals. Until now President Bush has let the administration hawks set the pace in US policy. Israel was given a free hand in the occupied territories in the hope that the elimination of Palestinian radicals would make Yasser Arafat more compliant about peace terms.
Instead, the conflict has worsened so much that it has derailed the administration hawks' main strategy in the "war on terror" - the ousting of Saddam Hussein.
The policy dilemma has opened a rift in the administration that is clearly visible around the world. Mr Powell has been second-guessed and marginalized more than any secretary of state in recent years.
Mr Bush appears unable or unwilling to settle the row. He is constrained from leaning too heavily on the Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, by his fear of alienating pro-Israeli conservatives who represent the core of his re-election strategy.
Similarly, his administration's ideological coloring has hampered it in its effort to marshal the country's defenses against terrorism. Mr Ashcroft, who carries the banner for the Christian right, spent his first months in office seeking to divert justice department resources from counter-terrorism to crusades against drugs and pornography. Even after September 11, scores of FBI agents have been tied up by a prolonged surveillance of a New Orleans brothel, and a crackdown was ordered against medical marijuana.
The next few months will be critical. Another terrorist strike on US soil while the intelligence agencies are squabbling over their turf could devastate confidence in the government. Meanwhile, if the long-awaited US initiative in the Middle East fails to stop the conflict there, Arab hostility to Washington could destabilize its allies in the region and further foment Islamic radicalism.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002