America - Andrew Stephen on Kofi Annan, the spoilsport

George Bush plans to start pounding those patriotic war drums in time for the mid-term elections in

If there is one theme I try to convey in these columns, it is this: that the US is not content with being the world's only superpower but also wants to be the world's boss. American logic, indeed, assumes that with unchallengeable military power comes the moral right to dictate what happens in the rest of the world; it occurs to few Americans that they comprise only 5 per cent of the earth's population. Even moderate and otherwise sensible people here have contempt for the United Nations, seeing it as a meddling, alien body that interferes with the US's divine right to rule. Democracy, liberty, justice? Yeah, we have all these here in America, but you know what you can do with your world democratic ideals.

That is why last Monday night's sudden announcement by the UN secretary-general, Kofi Annan, that Iraq would give unfettered access to UN weapons inspectors so angered the Bush administration, blind-siding it in its steady march towards war with Iraq. The Bushies underestimate Annan at their peril: he has spent much of his adult life in the US and is a formidable operator when it comes to understanding its power and politics. What specially irritated the administration was the way Annan personally congratulated Bush for what he knew would be unwelcome news to the White House. "I believe the president's speech [to the UN] galvanised the international community," said Annan, crediting Bush for avoiding war when that is the last thing Bush wanted to do by taking the UN route.

"The United Nations must act," responded a petulant Bush next day in a speech in Nashville. "It's time for them to determine whether they'll be the United Nations, or the League of Nations. It's time to determine whether or not they'll be a force for good and peace, or an ineffective debating society." Even if you're the 43rd US president, you see, it does not actually occur to you that by far the most powerful member (and founder) of the UN is - the US itself. But Annan's negotiations with Saddam, via the offices of the Arab League, have forced the issue out into the open: the majority of the UN wants peace, while the US is still furiously determined to make war.

The splits within the Bush administration, of which I have been writing for more than a year, also became more clear by last Tuesday. The secretary of state, Colin Powell, treading a desperately delicate course between his personal preference for diplomacy and his commander-in-chief's wish for war, said that he will still press for a new UN resolution against Iraq. "If the Iraqis are serious," he said, "they will want one." By describing Iraq's move as "a beginning, not an end", Powell emphasised that he can still envisage an outcome not involving war - a notion now anathema to Bush himself and to Donald Rumsfeld, the defence secretary, and Paul Wolfowitz, his deputy. To them, and to the vice-president, Dick Cheney, the sooner war comes, the better.

Annan's diplomacy has thrown Bush's electoral timetable into potential disarray - the elections in November, which will, among other things, decide whether the Democrats retain their one-vote control of the Senate and whether younger brother Jeb remains governor of Florida. Bush is nothing if not a quick adapter to expediency: when he came to power 20 months ago, he considered Mexico to be his priority in international affairs (he had trade dealings with Mexico as Texas governor, you see).

The 11 September atrocities forced him rapidly to reconsider foreign affairs, and poor old Mexico was quickly dropped. By 20 September, the focus was on an international war against terrorism, personified by Osama Bin Laden - whom Bush wanted "dead or alive". But when that did not work out, the new personification of evil materialised into Saddam Hussein (the man who tried to have Bush's dad assassinated in 1993): the timetable dictated that a strong president be visibly pounding on the patriotic war drums by the time voters went to the polls.

Then the meddling UN steps in, spoiling the envisaged domestic political timetable. Meanwhile, as far as the UN is concerned, the first hopeful steps towards peace are being taken - with 220 weapons inspectors from 44 countries ready to move into Iraq.

But we should be in no doubt that Bush, Cheney and Co are already unanimous that the US will ignore the UN when they deem it timely to do so. Courtesy of the UK, the US is moving B-2 bombers - each can carry 16 2,000lb, laser-guided bombs - to the British protectorate of Diego Garcia. Six-hundred military planners are moving to General Tommy Franks's new operational headquarters in Qatar. Thousands of US troops will go to Kuwait later this month for amphibious exercises. As far as Washington (minus Powell's State Department) is concerned, war against Iraq has already begun; and Kofi Annan can go right back to Africa as far as America is concerned.