Tangled in the neoconservative web

Talk about the axis of evil is back with a vengeance, hopes for the Middle East road map are recedin

The government's top legal mind is clear. The US and Britain have no mandate to decide postwar Iraq's political future. That must be left to the United Nations.

The advice of the Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, has been passed to senior ministers and officials in Whitehall. It has been discussed in recent days in meetings of the Prime Minister's war cabinet. In his assessment, Goldsmith cites the Geneva Conventions, which make clear that occupying powers have a duty of humanitarian relief and have a responsibility to keep order and to safeguard transitional arrangements. They can make short-term changes to civilian institutions, but they cannot determine the long-term political authority. All humanitarian and political arrangements explicitly require a UN Security Council resolution.

Goldsmith's conclusions fall firmly behind international precedent. In normal times, and faced with normal administrations, that would pose few problems. But as Tony Blair needs no reminding, these are not normal times and this is no normal White House. For a US administration that is increasingly uniting behind the neoconservative world-view of Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, such legal constraints are anathema.

Blair has in effect put on hold his efforts to persuade the Americans to give the UN a central role in the reconstruction of Iraq. His language on the issue has become more blurred.

For these reasons, I am told, Goldsmith's musings will not be published - unlike his assertion a few weeks ago that Britain could go to war without a second UN resolution, a decision that helped salvage Blair's desperate position.

Blair's position now is still difficult, but it is not as bad as it was then. He has entered phase three of this conflict. The first stage, the start of hostilities, came as a relief after months of tortuous and ultimately unsuccessful diplomacy. The troops were going in, MPs, voters and the media would rally round. That phase lasted just a couple of days. The second stage saw doubt and frustration. The "I told you so" party juxtaposed the promises of a quick war and cheering Iraqis with the reality of Iraqi resistance and Rumsfeld's flawed military plan.

But - strange to say, given the daily stream of Iraqi civilian and British military casualties, gunned down by trigger-happy kids from Kentucky - that, too, may be passing. This now is the period of muddle, of amateur predictions and of fatigue. As Jack Straw pointed out, the saturation coverage on 24-hour news and in the newspapers leads to snap judgements and impatience. Barely a fortnight into what may turn out to be America's biggest military campaign since Vietnam and people on all sides of the argument feel they have seen it all. Each market place tragedy, each gunning down of families at checkpoints, each case of "friendly fire" merges into the next.

At Westminster, there is torpor. After all the hype and misinformation leading up to the conflict, expectations have in recent days been managed down so much that everyone is preparing for a long haul. MPs have time on their hands. They are going through the motions of domestic parliamentary business. In government departments not directly connected with the war, they are trying to keep their minds on their day-to-day routines. But ministers, in the knowledge that the attention of the only person who matters is elsewhere, are taking advantage of the lull to get home early. Most critics of the government are keeping their counsel just a bit longer and it won't be long before the Commons disappears for a conveniently long Easter recess - an enforced departure to reinforce backbenchers' sense of the futility of their efforts.

Blair's immediate position is fluid. The polls and focus groups provide contradictory evidence, but it could be worse. This is one area where news management has worked well. The bigger the protests became in February, the higher the bar was raised. By the time 140 Labour MPs had rebelled, more than during the previous revolt which had itself been the biggest in parliamentary history, newspapers allowed themselves to be spun into writing that the Prime Minister had prevailed. No matter how many hundreds of thousands now demonstrate, public hostility will be played down. For the moment, there is nowhere for these people to go. The government is hoping apathy will prevail.

Blair can draw comfort from much of this. His medium-term problems, however, are far more acute. The diplomatic miscalculations, the unfulfilled promises, will eventually come back to haunt him. In a number of areas, from postwar UN legitimacy, to the Middle East peace process, to the Arab world more generally, to Europe, he has allowed himself to be tangled in the neo-con web, and will struggle to extricate himself.

It has taken an inordinately long time for the penny to drop, but people around Blair are under no illusions. They are now working from the assumption that, for all Britain's cooperation before and during the war, our current level of influence in Washington is moving towards one of its cyclical lows. This time, they cannot blame Rumsfeld and Cheney. The axis of evil, which had been dropped for a few months for a slightly more sophisticated approach, is back with a vengeance. This time, the threats coming out towards Tehran and Damascus have been made with even greater menace by the likes of Colin Powell, the secretary of state, and Condoleezza Rice, George Bush's national security adviser.

Washington is speaking now with one voice, and that voice is alien to a British government that laid so much emphasis, in the months after 11 September 2001, on creating a new dialogue with Iran and Syria.

John Bolton, number three in the State Department and the neo-cons' placeman in hostile territory, tends to say what others in the administration are thinking. He is reported to have told Israeli officials recently that the US would soon have to deal with the likes of Syria, Iran, Libya and North Korea. As for Powell, it did not go unnoticed in London that he sought acceptance in the hawk family by making his speech at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the main pro-Israeli lobby group.

Ever wary of pressing Bush too hard, Blair is seeing his modest ambitions for the Middle East peace process being swatted away. The so-called "road map", a modest document, was supposed to have been published long ago. Blair salvaged a promise from Bush to start moving on it as soon as the Palestinians' new prime minister, Abu Mazen, had been appointed. That happened on the eve of war, but when I reminded Blair that Bush hadn't kept to his side of the bargain, Blair claimed Bush was only ever supposed to make good his side of the bargain when a Palestinian cabinet was in place.

Now the word is we must wait until the Palestinian government is deemed to be "properly functioning" - a term that will give all sides political cover for the inevitable delay. When, or if, the road map does come, the document is almost certain to have been scaled back by Ariel Sharon and his friends in the US government. Those negotiations have already begun, on the quiet. As he seeks to prosecute this war, Blair is already wondering what exactly his peace dividend is worth.