Don't forget who's now the boss

President Bush still needs to throw his weight around in Iraq, because his "war on terror" is going

A deadly terrorist attack. Scores or possibly even hundreds are killed amid unspeakable carnage. And what do the American television networks lead on? The Washington sniper, naturally: after all, Bali is a long way away and only two Americans died there. But President Bush, asked next day about it, knows who is responsible: "I think we have to assume it's al-Qaeda," he said, adding: "Here at home, we're not immune from these kinds of attacks and I'm concerned about it." He was taking firm action, too. He would phone President Megawati Sukarnoputri and would expect a "firm and deliberate" response from her. "I hope to hear the resolve of a leader," he went on.

So take that, Megawati: your country may have just endured awful tragedy, but the all-powerful Bush administration is on to you. In those few words, indeed, Bush encompassed the US world-view that has developed since 11 September last year. It is much more than merely being the world's policeman; Bush arrogates to himself the right to give a dressing-down to the leader of the largest Muslim country in the world, ceding to nobody outside the US any independence of thought or action. American domestic security, meanwhile, remains paramount.

This is not just my view of how Washington views its place in the world. The administration's 34-page "National Security Strategy" - written last month by Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser who has the role of putting Bushian simplicities into more complicated, theoretical language (the "Bush doctrine") - says that, in the post-11 September universe, there is "a single sustainable model for national success" that is "right and true for every person, in every society". In other words, the world must now consist entirely of lots of little Americas - ruled over by the one almighty America.

That, too, is enshrined in the Bush administration's new strategy: America must "be strong enough to dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military build-up in hopes of surpassing, or equalling, the power of the United States". Or, put another way, America must reign supreme militarily, too. What is more, the US "will not hesitate to act alone, if necessary, to exercise [its] right of self-defence by acting pre-emptively" - thus at once exploding decades of painfully wrought international treaties and consigning the United Nations, say, to oblivion. Donald Rumsfeld, the defence secretary, adds in his own helpful little memo that the administration should not use ground forces or bomb below 20,000ft or risk US lives. It's that simple: American supremacy, when seen from the standpoint of the moral certainties of this administration, is dead easy to maintain.

Throw into the mix the Washington sniper and the midterm elections on 5 November, and you have peculiar forces coming together to drive America at home and abroad. There will hardly be a day from now until the elections that Bush will not be careering around the country as a partisan politician; by last Monday, he had raised $138m for the Republicans in 33 states this year alone. The Democrats do not know quite how to react to this combination of the self-appointed, grave, world supremo and the slippery politician: in the House of Representatives, 61 per cent of Democrats opposed war plans in Iraq, and in the Senate 21 out of 50. But they were all voting against the advice of the Congressional Democratic leadership, which fears the electoral consequences of appearing to be unpatriotic so near voting day. The cynical say that the administration started rattling its sabres at the end of a summer that had been politically bad for it, and that Karl Rove, Bush's main political adviser, saw the electoral value of a trumped-up war. But whatever happened to the war against terrorism that Bush declared on 20 September 2001?

Bush has been working hard to convince Americans that his proposed war against Iraq is part of that same war. "Why do we need to confront [Saddam] now?" he asked recently. "There's a reason. We have experienced the horror of 11 September." But in the words of Senator Bob Graham, the 65-year-old leader of the Senate Intelligence Committee, declaring war against Iraq now would be rather like the allies in 1938 declaring war on Mussolini's Italy - and ignoring Hitler's Germany. His views coalesce with those of the CIA. George Tenet, the director of Central Intelligence, says that Iraq is not a threat now, but could become one if the US attacks. This is not exactly a reassuring position for the administration and its most renowned source of intelligence to be in.

The truth is that if there was no definable demon like Saddam this autumn, the war against terror would appear to be going nowhere. People in Britain see the words "war against terrorism" as a metaphor, but Americans believe it is every bit as real a war as, say, the Second World War, or what Americans know as the 1942-45 war. Tom Ridge, the former Pennsylvania governor whom Bush appointed "director of homeland security" with much fanfare in the days after 11 September, specifically drew this analogy. Now, 13 months on, Ridge languishes in Washington with a small staff, tiny budget and (most importantly of all in this power-crazed city) no power.

The original plan was that Ridge would be in charge of consolidating 22 separate government agencies with 170,000 employees into one all-powerful branch of domestic government. But the $40bn vision is hopelessly logjammed in Congress, with the Bush administration insisting it must have total control over hiring and firing employees while Congress is equally adamant that unions must have a place. Ridge says: "It's almost incomprehensible to me, given the experiences of 9/11 and all the difficult and painful anniversaries of 9/11, that we are still waiting to restructure our government so we can protect ourselves." Thus Bush's director of homeland security shrugs his shoulders at the hopelessness of his own "war against terrorism".

And this, I suspect, is why Iraq has been pushed to the forefront of American perceptions. There is no trophy of a dead Osama Bin Laden, no vital convictions resulting from the 11 September atrocities. In the reality of 2002, a single gunman (or, quite possibly, more) can terrorise the nation's capital; no wonder there is a need for an escapist "Bush doctrine", in which the Bush administration acts as prosecutor, jury, judge and executioner for the whole world. In September last year and again in his subsequent State of the Union address, Bush insisted that the war against terror was the administration's overall priority. But politics is a messy, fluid business - and hence Iraq suddenly becomes a top priority instead.

The 40th anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis, meanwhile, passed here with little comment. But there is much that the zealots of the Bush administration could learn from those 13 days of true international crisis. First, that the policy of deterrence, now officially abandoned in Condoleezza Rice's fateful 34 pages of strategy, actually worked in a critical nuclear showdown with the Soviet Union. Second, that President Kennedy gave room to the Soviet Union to help manoeuvre itself out of the crisis. And, third, that he secretly offered a deal to the Soviet Union, which involved removing US missiles from Turkey.

But the Bush administration (with the exception of Colin Powell) consists of people who do not let complexities cloud their view of the world. As far as they are concerned, they - and only they - are in charge and they will not hesitate to show who is boss. Iraq and the likes of Megawati Sukarnoputri will learn this the hard way if necessary, as will the rest of the world. The Republicans, coincidentally, will triumph in the mid-term elections because of this strength of character, resilience and determination. And don't you forget who's now the boss, buddy. OK?