Here is something I never imagined five years ago: that America would lose its status as the good guy in the struggle against terrorism.

BOSTON — The milk carton I open this morning bears an oddly pedestrian message: Use by 9/11. I am bemused to see this infamous date in such an ordinary context. Somehow I thought it had been removed from the commercial calendar the way hotels removed the number 13 from their floor plans. By now, surely, 9/11 is more an icon than a date.

It’s been nearly five years since that September morning when those four planes took off in synchronized suicide. Still, 98% of Americans remember exactly where they were when they heard about the terrorist attack on what we have come to call the homeland. More than half of us think of 9/11 several times a week.

The 9/11 commission pinned the success of the attacks on “a failure of imagination.” But this summer, when the British police reported on “a plot to commit murder on an unimaginable scale,” I had no trouble imagining the contact-lens solution, the water bottle, even the lipstick, as agents of carry-on destruction.

But here is something I never imagined five years ago: that America would lose its status as the good guy in the struggle against terrorism. I didn’t imagine that our government would squander the righteous role won for us the hard way by victims falling from the Twin Towers and firefighters racing to their deaths.

Al Qaeda was a uniter, not a divider. After the attacks, the whole world seemed to be on our side, with the single, memorable exception of Palestinians dancing in the streets. Some 200,000 Germans marched in solidarity. Flowers arrived at our embassies. Even the reflexively anti-American newspaper Le Monde proclaimed, “We Are All Americans.”

When we went into Afghanistan in hot pursuit, the world stayed with us. But then we swung from a just war to a preemptive war, from a war on terror to a war of choice, from Osama bin Laden to Saddam Hussein.

“When we crossed the [Iraq] border, there was another great pause, then a transfer of sympathy,” an American intelligence officer told Newsweek. “The entire Islamic world took a step to the right.” The Bush administration imagined flowers and rose water, shock and awe, mission accomplished. It failed to imagine civil war, and that step to the right.

We went from the Twin Towers to Abu Ghraib, from civil defense to civil war, from innocent passengers to soldiers in Haditha. We blew it all on Iraq. In one poll, Europeans now find us more of a threat to world stability than even Iran. In a survey of 14 countries, none of them believe that removing Saddam made the world safer. And in Iraq itself, only 2% of the people now believe we invaded to liberate them from tyranny, while 76% think we did it “to control Iraqi oil.” Imagine that.

In his run-up to the fifth anniversary, the president is trying to shore up the connections between the war in Iraq and the war on terrorism as cannily as he tried to connect 9/11 to Saddam. “The security of the civilized world depends on victory in the war on terror, and that depends on victory in Iraq,” he told one friendly audience.

What if victory in the war on terror does not depend on victory in the war in Iraq? What if the Iraq war undermines and distracts us from the efforts against terrorism?

“The war we fight today is more than a military conflict; it is the decisive ideological struggle of the 21st century,” says the president. For bin Laden, the ideological struggle is between “believers” and “infidels.” For George W. Bush, it’s between freedom lovers and Islamic fascists. In his strategy speech, the president acknowledged a two-front war, arms and ideas. But he didn’t acknowledge that arms themselves can be a failed strategy.

In the global village, lasting, peaceful victory depends in large part on who wins the struggle over the moral story line, over right and wrong, innocence and guilt. War itself, with innocent victims, collateral damage and inevitable chaos, tilts that story line. War may recruit more enemies than it kills.

It’s no wonder that Americans are uneasy on this fifth anniversary. More than two-thirds think the country is going in the wrong direction and that we will not win the war on terrorism in the next 10 years. On one side, we see terrorists with a 9th-century ideology and 21st-century weapons. On the other side, we have the war in Iraq and all it has undone.

Meanwhile, the “war president” attacks opponents as appeasers and his only strategy is to “stay the course.” Here we are, 9/11 plus five, trapped by another failure of imagination.

Ellen Goodman’s e-mail address is ellengoodman(at symbol)

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