"Senior administration officials have acknowledged to me that they are considering alternatives other than democracy. Everybody in the administration is being quite circumspect, but you can sense their own concern that this is drifting away from democracy," - a "military affairs expert" who received an Iraq briefing at the White House last month.

I have long wondered whether Cheney and Rumsfeld ever believed that their job was to build a new democracy in Iraq. Rumsfeld had dealt with and supported Saddam in the past; Cheney was extremely suspicious of occupying Iraq in 1990. One subversive theory - which I'm not endorsing, just airing - is that both merely wanted to turn the Saddam regime to rubble, and then play along with neocon democracy supporters, while making sure that the military was never given enough resources to do nation-building. Then Cheney and Rumsfeld could prove their point about the impossibility of reforming the Muslim world, and promote the view that we need merely to pummel enemies, project military fear across the region, and deter Islamo-fascism by "shock and awe." The Likud strategy, in other words.

Under this interpretation, Bush was too trusting or dumb to understand the deviousness of their plan to fail in Iraq; Wolfowitz saw it too late and got out; Rice is stuck managing the debris that a democracy-promoting president and a democracy-hostile Pentagon created. The troops were just pawns in Cheney's and Rumsfeld's strategy. This interpretation would mean that incompetence is not the issue. Cheney and Rumsfeld have succeeded: they have turned Iraq into a failed state, removed its capacity to make WMDs, and detonated a regional Sunni-Shi'a war. Now they want to use the same brutalist strategy against Iran. This theory is probably too complex and subtle to be true. The screw-up theory of history is more often the most plausible. But it does make some internal sense - if you assume that Cheney and Rumsfeld are not complete incompetents.

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