Opponents frequently accuse George Bush of being in denial over Iraq. But in recent weeks the dire urgency of the situation, in both Baghdad and Washington, appears to have penetrated even the insulating layers normally enveloping the Oval Office.
The White House is increasingly alarmed at the widely shared belief that the progress report to Congress in September by the Iraq commander, General David Petraeus, and the US ambassador to Baghdad, Ryan Crocker, will mark the beginning of the end of the occupation.
The 29,000-strong military surge, ordered by Mr Bush in February, has already been written off as a failure, or not nearly successful enough, by many in Congress and beyond. With US casualties running at roughly double last year's level, pressure for withdrawal may become irresistible almost whatever Gen Petraeus says.
"The real debate is not about whether the US should pull out troops. That is now inevitable," said columnist EJ Dionne. "The real challenge is to figure out the right timetable, whether a residual force should be left there, and which American objectives can be salvaged."
According to foreign policy analysts Steven Simon and Ray Takeyh in the Washington Post, "what the US needs now is a guide to how to lose - how to start thinking about minimising the damage to American interests, saving lives, and ultimately wresting some good from this fiasco".
Nor is this defeatism (or realism) confined to Democrats and liberals. Richard Lugar led a charge against Mr Bush's policy last week by Republican senators who, like many of their House colleagues, believe the war is seriously harming both the country and their party's 2008 electoral prospects. Mr Lugar said, in sum, that domestic divisions had already fatally undermined the surge. "The strident, polarised nature of this debate increases the risk that our involvement in Iraq will end in a poorly planned withdrawal that undercuts our vital interests."
Democrats, spurred on by polls showing that most Americans want out of Iraq and are impatient for Congress to act, are doing their best to exploit doubts. Senate majority leader Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will call a series of Iraq votes this month, on pullout timetables, funding, and length of combat tours, to force Republicans to show where they stand.
Meanwhile, members of both parties are calling for a revival of the independent Iraq Study Group, whose findings last autumn were initially spurned by Mr Bush. At the same time, the anti-war movement is targeting electorally vulnerable Republicans in 15 states.
Mr Lugar's broadside sent national security adviser Stephen Hadley scurrying up to Capitol Hill to rally the troops. Mr Bush's dawning realisation that he is on the brink of losing control of Iraq policy has prompted steps to regain the initiative.
Tony Snow, the White House spokesman, has started playing down the importance of the September reports, suggesting they will just be a snapshot of a work in progress. Gen Petraeus's deputy, General Raymond Odierno, suggested that the surge may continue until next spring or even longer.
US benchmarks for progress by Iraq's government have largely not been met, although a draft oil law was reportedly agreed yesterday. Mr Bush has taken to stressing instead that local and provincial advances are more important.
"We need to look at Iraq from the bottom up," he said at the Naval War College in Rhode Island last week. "This is where political reconciliation matters most, because it is where ordinary Iraqis are deciding whether to support the new Iraq." This looked like an attempt to pre-empt political failure in Baghdad.
Yet still trying to avoid a train wreck - and showing unaccustomed energy - the president is cajoling and pressurising Iraq's leaders, holding frequent teleconferences with the prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki. A stream of senior officials has been sent to Baghdad. Discarding its usual secretiveness, the White House wants these contacts to gain publicity, to show it is trying.
A "desperate" Mr Bush is "running out of time" at home and in Iraq, said veteran commentator David Broder. The president's attempt to avoid a September showdown with Congress looks likely to fail. What the upshot of that showdown will be is still in doubt.
© Guardian News and Media Limited 2007