A senior Republican congressman just back from Iraq is talking privately over lunch on Capitol Hill. The occupation of Iraq is going a lot more badly than the American people have been told, he says; chaos rules much more than people are realising. Major efforts will have to be made to stop the country sliding downhill into violent anarchy. Three days later, the same congressman is on cable news. The Bush administration's plan for Iraq is going smoothly, he tells his much larger audience. There is no need to panic: all is under control.
The Bush administration is awash with such sophistry over the invasion and occupation of Iraq. When Dubbya broadcast to the nation on 7 September, he seemed tense and nervous. He looked like a loser and hesitantly delivered a badly written, 17-minute speech - there were few of the rhetorical flashes that his speechwriters usually insert, often with considerable success. "And for America, there will be no going back to the era before 11 September," he said. "We have learnt that . . . the surest way to avoid attacks on our own people is to engage the enemy where he lives and plans. We are fighting that enemy in Iraq and Afghanistan today so that we do not meet him again on our own streets, in our own cities."
Tony Blair may be in trouble over sexing up the reasons why Britain should join the Iraq invasion, but the charge sheet against Boy George and his cronies is considerably longer. In his broadcast, for example, Bush claimed yet again that there is a link between Iraq and the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks, even though his intelligence agencies say no such link exists. And the American people have been hoodwinked: polls show that seven out of ten now believe Iraq and Saddam Hussein were connected to the terrorist attacks. Even the once-liberal Washington Post is misled, saying that the invasion of Iraq was an "important component of [the] war against terrorism". No such rhetoric flows from the Bush administration over Saudi Arabia, where the link with the atrocities is palpable.
WMDs? We know about them, or rather the lack of them. Intelligence agencies' reports? We now know that the CIA told Bush there was no connection between 11 September and Iraq. We also now know that Bush and his neoconservative chums were warned that a US occupation would likely result in bloody uprisings ("obstruction, resistance and armed opposition"). But in the frenetic rush to war, such reports were ignored. Amid the war preparations, the then army chief, General Eric Shinseki, warned that hundreds of thousands of US troops would be needed to keep the peace after the invasion, but his projections were dismissed by the deputy defence secretary, Paul Wolfowitz, as "wildly off the mark".
According to the polls, for the first time since 11 September 2001, support for Bush has slipped - to the extent that a majority of Americans would prefer to have a different president. The main reason for this is anxiety over Iraq, in particular the growing number of deaths of US soldiers since 1 May (when Dubbya announced, in theatrical pilot togs and with an aircraft carrier as backdrop, that "major combat" was over). This is the domestic background against which Bush and his cronies are now turning to the United Nations, whose "responsibility" (as Dubbya so outrageously said in his broadcast) is apparently now to intervene in Iraq. Unless the steady trickle of US military deaths is transferred to UN troops, Bush will face serious trouble in next year's presidential election - which is already beginning to hot up. There are rumours that Al Gore and/or Hillary Clinton will enter what they believe may now be a winnable race because of the Iraq mess.
Domestic politics and foreign affairs are thus inextricably linked in Dubbya's febrile world; indeed, electoral considerations are now dictating US foreign policy. With the defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, his deputy, Wolfowitz, and the vice-president, Dick Cheney, in denial over the disasters in Iraq - all of them adamantly refusing to admit they were in any way wrong in their forecasts - the articulation of foreign policy is left to the secretary of state, Colin Powell, the estranged member of the administration who is none the less, as ever, the loyal old soldier supporting his bosses. "The president's strategy is a strategy of partnerships," is how Powell, in a little-noticed speech, tried to explain Dubbya's U-turn. "And the president's strategy doesn't rest on old alliances. It calls for new partnerships, new alliances, to meet new challenges."
All of which must be a bit of a surprise to Boy George, who spelt out his rehearsed position opposing nation-building in the 2000 presidential debates with Gore. Now, to try to remain at least reasonably consistent with the populist line designed to garner votes three long years ago, he must appear to be handing over the burden - and, above all, the daily roster of deaths - to the United Nations.
But even if old Europe co-operates with a UN Security Council vote, Dubbya has enemies at home determined to make life difficult for him. Senator John McCain, the Republican renegade who hates Bush as a result of dirty tricks in the 2000 presidential primaries, has called for more US troops to be sent to Iraq; so has Senator Joe Lieberman, the Democrat contender for the presidency. Each knows that such a move would be deeply unpopular with the electorate and imperil Bush's re-election next year.
Treading a precariously narrow line, Powell went on in his speech: "Progress is being made, and because the coalition is making such progress, far more Iraqis worry about our leaving too soon than about our staying too long. They need not worry. We will neither leave too soon nor stay too long . . . There need be no poles among nations that share basic values. We have no desire to create such poles, either. Indeed, we must work to overcome differences, not to polarise them." For the first time, Powell is dictating foreign policy to the neo-cons instead of vice versa. It gets stronger, too: "Instead of wasting lives and treasure opposing each other as in the past, today's powers can pull in the same direction to solve problems common to all. And if we do pull together, we will begin to redeem history from so much human folly."
So, if only he could, Dubbya would now willingly hand over all of Iraq to the UN. But then he risks being labelled a "quitter", a disastrous electoral epithet. So his quandary now is to ensure that no US troops come under the command of more senior UN officers; even though that has happened in recent years all round the world, the American electorate does not know it and would recoil from the idea that US troops might come under the command of, say, a Pakistani officer. Before Bush addresses the UN Security Council on 23 September, therefore, he must work out a deal in which UN troops would be sent to Iraq but would never be in a position to give orders to junior US soldiers. Life as US president certainly has its twists and turns.