Dubbya's diplomatic quagmire

Bush thought he could throw his weight around as he liked in the world. He was amazed to find that 9

So the Ay-zores "summit" - Americans always decide their own way of pronouncing foreign words, so the Ay-zores it became - did not work out and Bush addressed the nation on Monday night. Wearing the obligatory Stars and Stripes badge on his left lapel, he delivered would-be tough lines from his teleprompter that had been written by two speechwriters: "These governments share our assessment of the danger, but not our resolve to meet it" - exactly the kind of rhetoric Americans love, but which makes them so unpopular in much of the rest of the world.

That Azores junket on 16 March was one of the most cynical episodes of this whole sad business, because Bush took two of his main speechwriters with him on Air Force One - to work on the Monday-evening speech that would be a de facto declaration of war. In making his speech and launching war, Bush did not just gamble with Tony Blair's future; he embarked on a high-risk venture that puts his own political future on the line. Barry McCaffrey - a retired army general and formerly Clinton's drug tsar - says that there will be less than three weeks' fighting before the US takes Baghdad, which reflects administration thinking; Vice-President Dick Cheney, who has finally got the war he has desperately been after for months despite assiduously avoiding national service himself during Vietnam, says that Iraqis will look on invading US troops as "liberators".

Perhaps. But Bush crossed a Rubicon on Monday night, moving the world into a new era of pre-emptive wars adjudicated by its only superpower; he will not stop now if he meets with success in Iraq, moving on to Iran and North Korea and any other rogue little country that incurs his administration's displeasure (France?). The whole UN inspections saga was a charade - Cheney as good as said so - as far as the Bush administration was concerned. So High Noon came last Monday night, and Saddam was given 48 hours to get outta town - or else.

If it is all a diplomatic disaster for Blair, it is no less a colossal indictment of Bush's simplisme and an augury of what is to come. He thought he could throw his weight around on behalf of the US like an arrogant, ignorant Texan, but then found that was easier said than done as far as the 95 per cent of people who comprise the rest of the world are concerned; without Blair, he would have been in even deeper doo-doo (as the Bushes like to say).

To Cheney's fury, Dubbya was persuaded by both Colin Powell (who has aged decades in recent months, incidentally) and Blair to go through the UN and then to pursue a second resolution authorising an invasion; he said only two weeks ago that he would definitely pursue a vote on the second resolution, a position that stood until 17 March. As further sops to Powell and Blair, he also agreed to link his invasion of Iraq with a Middle East peace effort - and to talk about funding a postwar Iraq.

If votes in Congress were secret, in fact, many more Democrats and some moderate Republicans would have voted against the invasion. But it would be political suicide not to support the war. Tom Daschle, leader of the Democrats in the Senate, came out of the closet to ask why Bush had "failed so miserably". Even Senator Joe Lieberman, Al Gore's running mate in the 2000 election and a serious aspirant for the 2004 Democratic nomination - a strong supporter of Israel and of the invasion, too - speaks of "the Bush administration's unilateral divisive foreign policy, which has pushed a lot of the world away".

But for the mass of Americans, this war is all about 11 September. A majority, incredibly, now believe that Saddam Hussein was responsible for that day's atrocities and that Iraq and al-Qaeda are in cahoots - which Bush effectively claimed in his broadcast on the Monday. That has been one of the administration's most disingenuous spins, but it has worked. One of Bush's other lines is that if Saddam is not disarmed, another 11 September will happen - and again Americans believe him.

Bolstered by the simplistic certitude and insularity of the administration, they are also now contemptuous of the UN and its secretary-general, Kofi Annan. At the beginning of this month, Americans were against a war without UN support by a majority of 50 per cent against 42 per cent; by last Monday, 58 per cent were in favour of going in unilaterally and, by last Tuesday morning, 70 per cent.

With regard to his policy on postwar Iraq, Bush is showing a woeful, shoulder-shrugging ignorance. A US State Department study (meant to be secret) says that the prospects of bringing democracy to Iraq are poor, and that economic and social problems will undermine stability for years. Without the UN support that a competent president would have garnered, reconstruction will cost the US taxpayer a minimum of $20bn a year - and will require a long-term deployment of somewhere between 75,000 and 200,000 troops.

The president was openly criticised on this by a report from heavyweights of the calibre of James Schlesinger (defence secretary in the Nixon and Ford administrations) and Thomas Pickering (Bush Sr's ambassador to the UN) on behalf of the Council on Foreign Relations: Bush, they said, has failed "to fully describe to Congress and the American people the magnitude of the resources that will be required to meet the post-conflict needs" of Iraq. But Dubbya did not care about that until Powell and Blair pushed him into thinking about it; when the subject comes up for discussion among Americans now, they say that looking after postwar Iraq will be the UN's job. Yet how many Americans, I wonder, know that, until 11 September 2001, the US owed the UN billions in dues?

Francophobia is now so entrenched here, meanwhile, that it is acceptable to be racist about an entire country: Bill O'Reilly, Fox News Channel's superstar journalist, has launched a nationwide campaign to boycott everything French. "Keep your francs," he said on his show about the French, apparently not having heard that it now uses euros (he also believed Germany had a veto at the UN and pronounced L'Express "lay express", such is his erudition). Sir Jeremy Greenstock, the UK's ambassador to the UN - to his shame - did the dirty work for the administration on 17 March by agreeing to criticise France (without naming it) in an initial statement to the media about abandoning the second resolution. Administration officials say that Powell and the French had a secret agreement about a second UN resolution but the French then stabbed Powell in the back. The result is that the French are now treated as Nazis here.

If the invasion is over quickly and results in few US casualties - followed by mass cries of "I told you so" if and when weapons of mass destruction are discovered hidden in Iraq - Bush could even emerge from the diplomatic quagmire he has created with his reputation enhanced. But if the invasion goes badly and there are high US casualties, he will face a very unpleasant re-election year leading up to 2004 - and would probably lose to Lieberman or whoever is the Democratic candidate.

So it is not just Blair who is biting his nails in anticipation: for Bush, the invasion is as high-risk an operation as it is for anyone. Except for 300,000 troops and for the people of Iraq.