America - Andrew Stephen says Resolution 1441 suits Bush fine

As 250,000 ground troops get ready to invade Iraq, the assumption is that Saddam Hussein will be top

So that's that, then. President Bush marches from triumph to triumph: not only does he win a series of resounding victories at the polls, but he then goes on to secure an unprecedented 15-0 UN Security Council vote authorising war against Iraq. Is there no end to the Churchillian leadership qualities of the man?

The US and Britain scored a remarkable victory at the UN, right?

Wrong. The day after the mid-term elections, the Bush administration immediately offered concessions to the French to get a resolution through. Critically, it agreed to drop the words saying that Iraq was in "material breach" of 16 previous Security Council resolutions. Instead, it agreed to wording in the six-page measure that apparently allows the UN weapons inspectors to judge whether Iraq has violated its obligations - and threatens the more vague "serious consequences" if Iraq fails to oblige.

Thus the French, in effect negotiating with the US and UK on behalf of the rest of the world, managed to get what they wanted over eight weeks of diplomacy: a UN resolution that seems to put the ball firmly back into the weapons inspectors' court, and a requirement that there be a second stage in Security Council deliberations before the US uses force. The blurring of what the US and UK originally demanded was agreed by Colin Powell in numerous phone calls with Jack Straw and between Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, and Sir David Manning, soon to forsake 10 Downing Street to come here as UK ambassador. But UN Resolution 1441 has left the US and UK still potentially dangerously polarised from much of the rest of the world.

The Bush administration is taking 1441, unquestioningly, as authority for military action for when - not if - it deems it necessary. War is seen as inevitable: 59 per cent of Americans now favour sending ground troops to Iraq, and 61 per cent say UN weapons inspections will not be effective. Inside the Bush administration (with the exception, as ever, of Powell) those figures would be 100 per cent.

The vice-president, Dick Cheney, is openly disdainful of the UN and its weapons inspectors - though even he was impressed when, along with Bush, Rice and Paul Wolfowitz (deputy defence secretary), he met Hans Blix and Mohamed el Baradei of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Blix is a deft old Swede who is determined to play his crucial role as chief weapons inspector, but even though Blix and el Baradei are due in Baghdad as early as 18 November, he and his team are unlikely to come up with their first report until 21 February.

That does not fit the US timetable - and thus, presumably, Britain's, too - one little bit. The first date seen as relevant here is 15 November, by which time Saddam Hussein is supposed to have indicated his compliance with the UN resolution. But Washington sees the crucial date as 8 December - by that time, under the UN resolution, Saddam is supposed to deliver a written report of the whereabouts of all facilities for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. If that does not happen, bingo! - the US can start raining down its smart bombs. And, what is more, it will have a UN mandate to do so.

The Bush administration has drawn up a plan in which up to 250,000 ground troops would take part in an invasion of Iraq. They would encircle but avoid entering Baghdad or Tikrit, Saddam's home town. The assumption is that Saddam would soon be toppled from within, making messy fighting unnecessary. The plan calls for initial bombardments from B-1 and B-2 bombers, which would come from Diego Garcia, Britain, Qatar, Kuwait and Bahrain.

It is as though smart lawyers have hammered out a compromise deal - an extra comma here, a change of word there - that enables everyone to feel their wishes have been met. But what will France, Russia and China say when the bombing actually starts? It is not just the world that is split over the prospect of war: fully 24 per cent of Americans, despite the patriotic fervour, are opposed and distinguish between the war against terrorism and war against Iraq.

Overseas, and particularly in London, I suspect, it is assumed that Colin Powell, as secretary of state, is representative of the administration and its thinking. He is not. George W Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz: they are the true personification of current Washington thinking, and Powell is just one of the smart lawyer types, paid to negotiate with all those tricky foreigners. And as far as Bush and co are concerned, Powell's painstaking diplomacy has delivered them just what they want: a UN licence to bomb Iraq as soon as the US damned well wants.