He said if Iraqis go after each other in an all-out civil war, the United States may not be able to stop the violence.
"It simply is not clear that we can. We already saw in Lebanon, with a much more passive posture, that the moment you're seen as taking sides or intervening at all, you're seen by one or all sides as an enemy," Cordesman said.
"The problem we have right now is having made so many mistakes in Iraq, having squandered so many opportunities, having gotten it wrong so many times, there aren't any good options left," said Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institute. "We're now stuck between choices that are terrible and those that are worse than terrible."
Still, Bush is on the road looking for help. After the NATO summit he will meet Iraq's prime minister in Jordan, because a meeting in Baghdad is simply out of the question.
But he may find a way out of Iraq with the help of James Baker, one of Washington's canniest veterans and the former secretary of state under Bush's father.
Baker is co-chairman of the Iraq Study Group, along with former Democratic congressman Lee Hamilton. They're heading up a blue-ribbon panel that will lay out options for Iraq soon -- possibly as early as next week.
"I think Jim Baker is a master, not only as a negotiator but as a consensus-builder," said former President Reagan's chief of staff, Kenneth Duberstein, who worked closely with Baker.
"Jim Baker believes in consultation. He believes in the art of the possible. One of his great lines, always, is 'Uphill but doable,' and certainly this is very steeply uphill," Duberstein said. "But to Jim Baker, a group like this will put something on the table that is doable."
"The potential value of a group like Baker-Hamilton is, because they are bipartisan, because there are senior Democrats and Republicans and Iraq experts and experts on military affairs, they represent a wide range of viewpoints," Pollack said. "If they can come to consensus on a particular course of action, that could create a larger consensus within the country around Iraq policy … and that could make choosing among the awful, different alternatives that we have on Iraq, easier."
But in order for that to happen, the man who launched this war and stood under a banner proclaiming "Mission Accomplished" more than three years ago, must do something that does not come naturally to him -- change course.
"He knows this course can't be maintained, that he has to reach out. Whether it's the Jim Baker and Lee Hamilton report or one of the other reports that's in the works right now, and somehow forge a national consensus. That's the job of a president," Duberstein said.
"Leadership is not a matter of telling everybody that everything's all right or promising them easy answers," Cordesman said. "When you look at Lincoln or Washington, leaders that confronted real wars and real risks -- Franklin Delano Roosevelt or Truman -- in all of those cases, they led. They did not spin, they did not exaggerate, they did not promise."