It’s time for a national conversation on war. The avalanche of bad news from Iraq and Afghanistan is a signal that we need a bipartisan consensus on when to resort to armed force; on what circumstances, if any, call for going it alone, or whether we should always act in concert with allies; and on what foreseeable or imaginable situation would warrant resort to nuclear weapons.

And we need to look again at the central military doctrines of our time: The Powell Doctrine, which shaped the first Gulf War, is in eclipse. That called for exhaustive diplomacy and then, only as a last resort, the use of overwhelming conventional force. Now we have what could be called the Rumsfeld Doctrine: an impatience with diplomacy and a readiness to deploy U.S. power solo and often, but with light, highly mobile, often unconventional forces that move in fast and then withdraw, leaving others to rebuild.

Today, we see these issues playing out in three conflicts. The United States is fighting two wars, in Afghanistan and Iraq, and a third conflict, which President Bush terms a war but is in fact an amalgam of warfare, diplomacy, intelligence, police action, and economic effort: the struggle against Muslim extremists. The United States is losing in all three cases.

At the same time, the administration has instructed the Defense Department to develop plans for air strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities. This report is not denied by the administration; the plans are detailed. They are not, as claimed, the usual contingency plans that end up filed in Pentagon desk drawers.

The parallels with 2002-03 and the run-up to the Iraq war are deeply disturbing. And the silence in Congress and among the political chattering classes is deafening.

Are we doing all that badly in the three conflicts? Are we in fact losing? And if so, which of the above issues are central to understanding what has gone wrong?

In Afghanistan, we selected war lite. The initial aim was regime change. With a very small force, we accomplished that; means and ends matched. But bringing down a noxious government leaves a vacuum. It does not magically produce a stable, well-governed, and friendly nation. Had the Bush administration looked beyond its ideological aversion to nation building, and understood what a difficult, fractious land Afghanistan was and is, we would have used major forces, accepted North Atlantic Treaty Organization offers of help, and stayed away from warlords.

Today, Afghanistan is slipping back toward anarchy as Taliban forces wrest control of more and more territory. We won the battle; we are losing the peace. We are losing the war.

The Iraq venture sprang from a spectrum of objectives: 1) elimination of weapons of mass destruction, 2) anti-terrorism, 3) redrawing the political map of the Mideast and thus securing oil supply, 4) democracy promotion, and 5) muscle flexing.

The first was an illusion created by Saddam Hussein to protect his regime. The second was simply bogus. The third and fourth each had a rationale, though in my view neither was credible. The last — muscle flexing — was America at its worst. We knew very little about Iraq. The battle plan made excellent military sense; the war plan made none. We won the battles (we almost always win the battles) and, again, we are losing the war.

It is difficult to imagine an outcome that will justify the loss of life and treasure (on both sides) and the damage to America’s ability to exert legitimate international leadership.

The greatest cost of the Iraq venture, however, is damage to the struggle against Islamic extremism. That struggle is where the deepest dangers lurk and where, therefore, our most basic interests lie. It is center stage; Iraq and Afghanistan, in terms of our national interests, are sideshows.

Before 2003, our relations with the principal states of the Muslim world ranged from uneasy to mediocre. Today, they are simply bad. A preponderance of Muslims from Morocco to Indonesia have come to believe that the United States is implacably hostile to them. That is the environment from which extremists emerge.

American and other Western intelligence services pick off hundreds of extremists; our policies generate thousands.

The number of terrorist incidents rises each year. Finance is ever more available to those who would wreak havoc on us and the other Western countries.

The longer the Iraq war goes on, and the longer our diplomacy fails to deal effectively with Israel and the Palestinians, the greater the terrorist threat.

Is a nuclear explosion in a U.S. city more or less likely than in 2001? If one is pessimistic on that issue alone, notwithstanding all the above, one must conclude that we are losing the most important of struggles. I am a pessimist.

Today, the American military is stretched almost to breaking. We are losing on all fronts. Yet the administration gives all signs of considering another war.

The substitution of force for creative policy and diplomacy could ignite the entire Mideast, and beyond. It is more than time for the dialogue on when to use force and when to use the many other means at our command.

To begin, we might agree that force is the last — not the first — step for a civilized nation.

(Eugene Mihaly is an international businessman and president of the Foundation for Ocean State Public Radio.)