Behind many of the recent books about the Bush administration, there is a surprising consensus: the cold war background of many of its key members made it uninterested in stateless terrorism. But that same cold war background may mean that the Iraq war will prove a temporary aberration.

Bob Woodward, the journalist of Watergate fame, has become America's court chronicler, with all the good and bad this term implies. The details of the Bush administration's planning for the Iraq war, which Woodward describes in his latest book, Plan of Attack, would have come into the open sooner or later, as the figures who talked to him talked to others and wrote their memoirs. Woodward has nonetheless performed a real service by speeding up the process.

As a court chronicler, Woodward is least valuable when the court is united around the monarch, as was the case in the months following 9/11. His book on that period, Bush at War, is a virtual hagiography of Bush, his team, and indeed of the US system of government. In his latest book, although he is more detached, Woodward still shows an instinctive deference to the president - strange indeed for the man who helped to bring down Richard Nixon.

When the court is divided, as was the case in the run-up to the Iraq war, Woodward becomes more interesting. Like any such chronicle, his account is partial. Those who refused to talk to him are punished by having responsibility for mistakes thrust on to them without the chance to respond - the biggest sufferers being George Tenet and the CIA. While Woodward presents what seems to be an accurate and detailed account of some of the debates which took place within the administration, he never addresses other central issues: most notably the role of Israel, Iraq's oil, and the failure to plan seriously for the postwar occupation.

We all knew of the bitter divisions between Colin Powell and the state department, and Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and others over whether and how to go to war, but Woodward provides detail, and a few genuine revelations, such as the extraordinary access of the Saudi ambassador Prince Bandar and his countrymen to the planning process. And the secret diversion of congressionally mandated funds for the Afghan operation to preparation for the war in Iraq, which Woodward exposes, would be grounds for impeachment in a properly functioning US system.

In a couple of respects, however, Woodward falls short of greatness even as a court chronicler - leaving aside his execrable prose style. First, what is a court chronicler without a vivid sense of what might be called higher political sex - the frenetic copulation of political ambition, greed, ideological belief and personal hatred which is the stuff of court life? Woodward's account is strangely aseptic. Differences are sharp, but they are sincere differences of opinion between responsible, patriotic American public servants. Their own views of themselves and their actions are presented straight, without any suggestion of potential falsity, hypocrisy or mendacity. Of course, there is truth in this. I have no doubt that the great majority of the figures involved were genuinely convinced that they were acting in the best interests of the US, or Israel, or both. One great merit of Woodward's book is that he brings out in the president's own words the extent to which Bush himself believes implicitly both in a personal myth of divinely appointed mission and in national myths of America's mission to the world. But as the role of Halliburton underscores, patriotism is not the only story here.

Woodward's other flaw is that he seems incapable of looking at the court from outside. He simply loves the US system too much to ask whether the non-planning of this war might have reflected not merely personal misjudgements and mistakes, but an increasing dysfunctionality of the system of government.

The nearest Woodward gets to this is an account of criticism by deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage of Condoleezza Rice's failure to play her role as a co-ordinator of different government departments. By way of contrast, the Duke of St Simon's memoir of Versailles under Louis XIV expresses throughout an awareness that there is something essentially false or weird about the whole spectacle, which in turn reflects an awareness that there might be a different and better way for a governing elite to live and conduct its affairs.

This sense Woodward seems to have lost, and lacking it, he cannot address the question about the Bush administration which historians are likely to ask for years to come, even if Iraq and the war on terror go unexpectedly well from now on. This is not the question of how, but why. What really motivated the leading sections of the Bush administration to divert their attention from the threat of Islamist terrorism to a target and a war which could only strengthen the terrorists, before Osama bin Laden and other leaders of al Qaeda had been captured, or Afghanistan stabilised?

A number of recent books have considered this question from different standpoints, and each is valuable in its own way. James Mann's Rise of the Vulcans is a collective biography of Bush's foreign and security policy team; the political memoirs of Richard Clarke and Paul O'Neill are accounts of the Bush administration by dissident former senior officials (O'Neill was treasury secretary; Clarke was res-ponsible for co-ordinating counter-terrorism strategy before and after 9/11); and Imperial Hubris, by Anonymous, a senior analyst in the terrorism field at the CIA, is an impassioned polemic on the mixture of arrogance, incompetence, false priorities and false loyalties that, in the author's view, have dominated the American government's approach to the war on terrorism.

What all these books bring out is the amazing indifference of the US security establishment to terrorism, both before 9/11 and all too soon after it. Indeed, the length of time for which the Bush administration was truly focused on the terrorist threat can be stated precisely: 72 days. According to Woodward, it was on 21st November 2001, 72 days after 9/11, that Bush instructed an all too willing Donald Rumsfeld to begin plans for possible war with Iraq.

Much of the books by Clarke and Anonymous concern the failed attempts of anti-terrorism experts to get senior officials to concentrate on the nature and extent of the terrorism threat. Wolfowitz and Rice emerge from Clarke's account as especially negligent. But the question of responsibility goes beyond individuals to the system as a whole. Clarke, Anonymous and Woodward (in Bush at War) all record, with varying degrees of incredulity, that when 9/11 occurred the US military had no scenario and no plan for military inter-vention in Afghanistan - despite a series of deadly attacks by al Qaeda on US targets around the world in previous years.

Meanwhile, as Woodward pointed out in Bush at War, the US military had "contingency plans for the most inconceivable scenarios" in other areas. I can testify to the truth of this with regard to the former Soviet Union, and have no reason to doubt that it was true of China and other states as well. If, as Anonymous says, the security establishment scandalously allowed the US expertise on Afghan-istan, built up during the 1980s during the struggle against the Soviet occupation, to be squandered in the 1990s, one reason was that too many ambitious officers were learning Belarusian and Ukrainian as part of a campaign to "roll back" Russian influence in the former Soviet Union.

The answer to this riddle of indifference to terrorism is to be found in the effects of the cold war on the US system of government, and the related intellectual approaches to the outside world which reflect the ideology and interests of the American intellectual, administrative and military elites. The latter find it difficult to understand terrorist movements emanating not from states but from alien societies, cultures and ideologies. They are still calibrated to fight a superpower enemy, and reacted to 9/11 by falling back on old patterns of thought and behaviour.

The cold war shaped all the leading members of the Bush administration's foreign and security staff. Many had already been senior officials in Republican administrations of the 1970s. The cold war also produced the neoconservative academic and bureaucratic grouping, whose members between 2001 and 2003 critically influenced the Bush administration and acted as some of its leading propagandists.

Even in confronting threats from states, their approach was based on a simplistic cold war paradigm of building up ever stronger American military forces. "The Vulcans [Bush's foreign policy advisers] were far less active in developing new institutions, diplomacy or other approaches that could deal with these issues, " says James Mann.

It is a failing which the US governing class needs to repair if the terrorists are to be fought with success, and if future distractions like Iraq are to be avoided. One aspect of this is the need for intensive studying of particular societies - involving research on the ground and knowledge of language and culture - rather than the drawing up of general approaches in the comfort of Washington. And knowledge alone is not enough. Even more important is the need, emphasised by Anonymous, for analysts to step outside American (and western) myths of the universal applicability of democracy and freedom, and to understand other cultures and ideologies from within. Indeed, one of the most valuable aspects of his striking book is his understanding of what drives al Qaeda and its appeal to many Muslims. This in turn helps him understand the rational and achievable aspects of the enemy's programme.

The charge against the US cold war-derived governing system also takes a harder form. It is argued from the left that this system is not merely calibrated for conflict with other states, but that, like some other state systems in world history, it needs such conflict, real or potential, in order to serve its interests and even to survive. This accusation has been given credence by the attempts of powerful sections of the US establishment in the 1990s to continue a form of cold war with Russia, and the attempts of others to develop a strategy of aggressive hostility to China.

This issue is central to the question of whether the strategies pursued by the Bush administration in its first three years in power were an aberration, or whether they represent a permanent change. There are good grounds to hope that the former is the case. If so, it should be possible to restore some kind of functioning western alliance, and avoid further major conflicts. If it is the latter, then the world, and especially the US, is in for a very rough ride indeed.

In his book The Burden of Southern History (1960), the historian C Vann Woodward described the American people as being "bellicose though unmartial." They are willing - even over-willing - to fight if America is attacked, but are not committed to the permanent celebration and projection of military power and values. By contrast, much of the US military-industrial complex, and the institutes and academics associated with it, might be described as imperialist and militarist but not bellicose. As Stanley Hoffmann wrote in a review of Reagan's America: Innocents at Home, Garry Wills's biography of Reagan: "Reagan's domestic programme precluded activism abroad, as Haig discovered with dismay. Foreign policy was to be just a matter of armed deterrence... occasional swift and easy coups (Grenada) and verbal thrusts at the evil empire."

This pattern has been reflected in the Bush administration policy towards Russia and China. The Bushites came to power with strongly anti-Russian and anti-Chinese agendas. The terrorist attacks led to a radical shift in US policy towards both Russia and China, and this shift has been increased still further by the war of occupation in Iraq and the revelation of the military weakness of the US, at least when it comes to prolonged campaigns.

The current drain on US reserve forces risks creating a crisis of morale and recruitment, and makes it evident to the military, and to most (though not all) civilian officials and commentators, that the US cannot afford another major war elsewhere. Another war of occupation would mean the reintroduction of conscription, tearing society apart and probably bringing the entire US imperial project to an early end.

In some respects the administration's arrogance towards Russia - and more ambiguously towards China - had already moderated several months before 9/11. When an American EP-3E reconnaissance aircraft was forced to land on the Chinese island of Hainan after a collision with a shadowing Chinese fighter, the resulting crisis was like a cold shock. The administration realised that the escalation of tension with China could lead to conflict, or at least a collapse of US-Chinese trade, with serious consequences for the world economy. It realised too that if increased military tension with China were a real possibility, it was unwise to infuriate Russia at the same time.

By late 2003, the Bush administration had gone much further. Bush recommitted America very strongly to opposing Taiwanese independence. And on the issue of North Korea's development of nuclear weapons, despite bursts of unilateralist rhetoric from hawks like John Bolton, the US administration tacitly recognised the impossibility in east Asia of following the "Bush doctrine" of preventative war.

In these circumstances, nationalist unilateralism simply could not work. In Iraq, too, the growing troubles of the US occupation have led to a change of heart towards the UN, western Europe, the different Shi'a leaderships within Iraq, and indeed sections of the former Ba'athist regime and military. By the start of 2004, John Ikenberry could already write with solid evidence of "The end of the neoconservative moment" - a phrase echoed in "The neoconservative moment," a critique of neocon thinking by Francis Fukuyama in a recent issue of the conservative journal the National Interest. Fukuyama's essay is particularly interesting as an indication of the depth of disillusionment with the neoconservatives in wider American conservative circles - for Fukuyama himself has in the past been described as a neoconservative. The resignation of arch-neocon Richard Perle from the Pentagon's defence policy board in February 2004 may in retrospect mark the moment of neoconservative decline.

The more multilateralist approach adopted at the end of 2003 has been seen as a limited victory for the strategy of Colin Powell and the state department. However, it also reflects the "realism" of Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and the institutions and traditions they represent.

The stance towards Russia and China adopted by the Bush administration after 9/11 fits admirably into this realist tradition. At bottom, it remained strongly distrustful of both countries' motives and plans. Equally, it recognised that it was not in the interest of the US to seek confrontation with them. Washington therefore sought co-operative relations, without making too many concessions.

The relative caution of the realists reflects in part the nature and interests of the US military-industrial and security elites. These elites are obviously interested in the maintenance and expansion of US global military power, if only because their own jobs and profits depend on it. But a desire for permanent international tension is a different matter from a desire for war, and least of all an international war which might damage the international economy.

The American generals of the Clinton era were described by Ian Williams as "aggressive only about their budgets." The American ruling system is not a Napoleonic or Moghul one. It does not actively desire major wars, because it does not depend on victories for its own survival. Small wars are a different matter.

The US army and marine corps remain more influenced by Vietnam than perhaps any other section of US society. Their caution is being strongly reinforced by the experience of Iraq. It was not the uniformed military which pressed for war with Iraq in 2002, but a group of politically appointed civilian officials in the Pentagon, most of whom had never heard a shot fired in anger. The former army chief of staff, Eric Shinseki, warned the administration publicly, and numerous other officers did so privately, of exactly the bloody and troop-consuming war of occupation which has unfolded in Iraq. Shinseki was publicly humiliated by Wolfowitz and other Rumsfeld allies in congressional testimony as a result.

There is, then, good reason to believe that the Iraq war will prove to be an aberration, and that the US war on terrorism will be conducted much more cautiously from now on, whether Bush or Kerry wins in November. A cautious policy is, however, not the same thing as a new policy. On present evidence, there are grounds to fear that the US system may be incapable of developing a political and economic strategy for the war on terrorism that would stand any chance of reducing support for the terrorists or regenerating the greater middle east.

It is miserably apparent from Woodward's book that no such effort was made by the Bush administration after 9/11, and there is also little sign as yet of Kerry and his close advisers being able to formulate a truly new approach. The critical issues raised by Anonymous in his last chapter, including unconditional support for Israel and dependence on middle eastern oil, are also likely to go unaddressed, whoever wins in November. Instead, we have a "strategy" of democratising the middle east which has been enunciated by Bush and accepted by Kerry, but which distracts debate from the painful changes in policy which the US needs to make. For the middle east is the great exception to the belief that "realist" views ultimately dominate US policy. Here, US behaviour is coloured by nationalist and religious passions to a degree which is not the case in, for example, east Asia - passions which 9/11 inflamed still further. The terrible memory of the Holocaust has combined with the long struggle with the Palestinians and Arab states to produce an inflamed nationalism not only among Jewish Americans but in much wider segments of the US population. As certain passages in Fukuyama's National Interest essay indicate, the first stirrings of a public critique of the relationship with Israel may be appearing in mainstream American foreign policy debates - but they are faint stirrings, and seem very far from affecting the behaviour of the main political parties, or of congress.

Above all, a changed strategy - as opposed to a more cautious one - is necessary because mere caution may be swept away if the US once again comes under massive terrorist attack, or if revolution in the middle east threatens American access to cheap oil. Either of these developments could lead a future US administration to launch a new military intervention. As Anonymous points out, the invasion of Iraq has proved a tremendous boon to al Qaeda and its allies in the Sunni extremist world. It would be surprising if future terrorist attacks were not crafted with a view to provoking the US into invading and occupying more Muslim states. If they succeed, then al Qaeda and its allies will be a long way to victory in their struggle.

Anatol Lieven's new book, "America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism," will be published in October by HarperCollins.