WASHINGTON—Last week, at the invitation of the World Economic Forum, a group of colleagues and I had a chance to spend a day meeting some of the top members of the Bush administration. The meetings were off the record, but I wish to share with readers some general impressions.

If the leaders of the administration sounded in public as humble, worldly and reasonable as they do in private, they might be more popular around the world. Behind closed doors, they come across as people who are aware of the complex nuances of international relations, mindful of national sensitivities, and more interested in preaching the value of democracy and limited government by example than by imposition. Why is that?

I can think of three possible explanations. The cynical one was given to me by a Scandinavian colleague, who told me that the meetings with the Bush crowd amounted to a beauty parade. The psychological explanation was given to me by another European, who said this administration has finally internalized its own unpopularity and feels compelled, when facing a foreign audience in private, to atone for its faults by behaving in the way the rest of the world would like it to. And here is my take: Members of the administration have a lot more faith in the principles of their foreign policy than in the policy itself; deep down, some of these cultivated minds understand that Iraq has evolved into the negation of the basic principle on which the occupation rests—the universality of the value of freedom.

This leads me to the second point. Barring a few very ideologically motivated individuals—some of whom have left the administration—what made possible the policies for which millions of people hate the U.S. government is not the fact that it is stocked with misinformed and trigger-happy simpletons who get a kick from bullying other countries. Instead, at a certain point, these human beings were placed in a position of too much power. The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the ensuing trauma in effect amounted to a suspension of many of the safeguards that normally constrain those who govern the United States. In those extraordinary circumstances in which legislators, judges, the media and civic institutions were willing to accept security over other concerns, those people who were making decisions of governance placed force at the center of policy.

The problem was not that the Bush people were all Satans. They are not. But at a critical time in U.S. history, they found themselves beyond some of the constraints of limited government. In a world in which international relations are not bound by the checks and balances that usually put a rein on government in a democracy, anyone who leads a superpower has, by definition, too much power. If you add to that the national commotion Osama bin Laden was able to inflict on the United States, what you get is precisely what the Founding Fathers feared so much: government with few constraints.

The lesson is that institutions are more important than the personal qualities of the people who govern; the institutions need to be put to good use even in extreme circumstances. The right kind of institutions will limit the havoc that the wrong kind of people in power can cause, and the wrong kind of institutions—or the suspension of limited government in extraordinary circumstances—can move bright people to corner themselves in the way the leaders I had the chance to meet last week have cornered themselves.

Finally, I was also left with the impression that this administration, though conscious of its weakened position, is by no means in a panic. Their confidence seems to come from the fact that their rivals do not have the moral high ground because they were part and parcel of the foreign policy they now oppose.

There may also be another reason: The polarization of American politics has split the vote into two roughly equal blocs. That is why, contrary to the general perception, the Democrats’ victory in the midterm elections was not overwhelming—and the reason why polls show today that the 2008 presidential election will not be a slam dunk for either party.