America - Andrew Stephen sees muddle in the white House

The president and his deputy contradict each other in public, and the secretary of state despairs of

The earth is flat. Did you not know this? The US vice-president, Dick Cheney, speaking on behalf of Boy George's administration, now insists this is so - and expects both the American people and the world to buckle under and believe it, or else. OK, so maybe this is going a little too far. But the more hawkish members of the Bush administration still expect the world to believe things that not even the 25-member "interim government" of Iraq accepts any more: that the US occupation of Iraq is "very successful", in Cheney's words, and that "we're well on our way to achieving our objective". And by the way, weapons of mass destruction will be found - and, just in case we have any doubts, Iraq was definitely linked to the 11 September 2001 atrocities.

Not even Dubbya, in his speech to the UN last Tuesday, went as far as Cheney in insisting that everything is hunky-dory in Iraq - and the speech that was written for him, desperately trying to straddle the tightrope between domestic and world opinion and hawks and doves within the administration, illustrated more than anything else the quandaries in which Dubbya finds himself over Iraq. He had already publicly disagreed with Cheney that Iraq was linked to 11 September - accidentally, I believe - and in his UN speech dealt with America's triumph in ridding the world of a vicious dictator rather than Cheney's ringing declaration that there are now fewer attacks against US troops and that attacks have, in any case, shifted to "soft" targets.

But Colin Powell, the secretary of state, who looks more world-weary than ever, now concedes outright that the US military is under "great stress" (of the US army's 33 active-duty brigades, 16 are now in Iraq and two are in Afghanistan). The need for more troops, American or otherwise, is overwhelming. But while Powell has become almost openly despairing of the way the US invaded Iraq without UN support, ultra-hawks such as Cheney and the deputy defence secretary, Paul Wolfowitz, persist in talking and behaving like ostriches with their heads buried in the sand. "No one that I know of would ever claim that this war is cheap or easy," was the latest proclamation from Wolfowitz, contradicting his and Cheney's earlier prophecies that US troops would be welcomed with open arms in Iraq. And he added for good measure: "Iraq did have contact with al-Qaeda . . ." So take that, Mr President.

Poor Dubbya's advisers are caught in the middle of all this, not sure whether to appear to be turning to his hawks, to the international community in the form of the UN, or to the American public, which will go to the polls next year. The president's speech to the UN tried to have it all ways, saying that "all nations of goodwill should step forward and provide . . . support", while also throwing in: "The regime of Saddam Hussein cultivated ties to terror while it built weapons of mass destruction. It used those weapons in acts of mass murder, and refused to account for them when confronted by the world."

We all know that Iraq had and used WMDs: the question is whether Saddam had them immediately before this year's invasion and, if so, whether that was a valid reason for war. But Dubbya and his advisers are more than happy to let such ambiguities float in the air. By such tricks of circumlocution, his advisers plan for him to crawl out of the Iraq mess in time for the presidential elections next year. Opinion polls show that General Wesley Clark, the latest Democratic candidate to enter the electoral fray, would beat Bush if an election were held now. Dubbya is in trouble, but he firmly believes he will ultimately triumph, both in Iraq and at the polls. Indeed, he is a strong adherent of what I gather is now called "faith politics", having faith that his policies will work in the end.

Despite his apparent courting of the UN, Dubbya is and will remain at heart one of the hawks rather than a builder of international consensus. The day before he addressed the UN, he showed his true colours in a rare television interview with Fox News. "I will make it clear [to the UN] that I made the right decision," Bush pronounced. And will he pursue a vital new role in Iraq for the UN? "I'm not sure we have to, for starters," he said.

So, for the foreseeable future, we can expect much of the same flat-earth rhetoric from Washington - whatever happens at the UN. In his television interview, Dubbya said: "You've got to remember that [the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan] are battles that are part of the war." We can expect continued justification of the war in Iraq as part of a war on terrorism. The hunt for WMDs will also go on, with the American public hoodwinked by sleight of words into believing that Iraq had them immediately before the invasion.

And Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden? "I'm confident we'll get both of them in time," said Bush, full of faith that his words will one day come true.