America - Andrew Stephen sees warfare in the White House

Bush was elected at least partly on the premise that he could assemble a strong team to compensate f

Relax. President George W Bush is in charge. We know this because he told us so in a speech last Monday: because he has appointed Condoleezza Rice, his national security adviser, to be in charge of an "Iraq Stabilisation Group", everything will be just hunky-dory there from now on. The trouble is, by no means everyone believes Dubbya any more, and most people inside the Beltway think he has lost control of what is going on in Iraq. Take what Senator Joe Biden, the most senior Democrat on the Senate foreign relations committee, said on television the previous day: "I'd say, 'Mr President, take charge. Take charge. Let your secretaries of defence, state and your vice-president know this is [Bush's] policy and that anyone . . . [who] diverts from the policy is off the team.'"

Such anti-Bush talk over Iraq has been off-limits for senior Democrats until recently. But what was most revealing was the immediate response to Biden from Senator Richard Lugar, chairman of the Senate committee and a loyal Republican: "I concur with my colleague. The president has to be the president. That means the president over the vice-president, and over the secretaries [of state and defence]. And Dr Rice cannot carry that burden alone."

Boy George was elected at least partly on the premise that he could assemble a strong team who would compensate for his inadequacies, but now the members of that team are tearing at each other's throats. And it is hard to see what magic Rice can conjure. The last time I was at Camp David, she was omnipresent - that, indeed, is her role within the Bush administration. She has perhaps the closest ties of any national security adviser to any US president, eclipsing even Henry Kissinger's relationship with Richard Nixon. Her role is vague: the position was established in 1947 to advise the president on foreign and domestic issues. In Bush's own words, Rice is "one of the family" - which is doubtless why he turned to her in his hour of acute need.

But Rice isn't all she's cracked up to be. A state department official has described her department as "dysfunctional", and she did herself no favours when she said she was unaware of doubts over the claims about Niger uranium - even after her department had received two memos from the CIA, plus a phone call from its director. Rice is a Russian specialist, though she did not foresee the collapse of the Soviet empire; it is hard to imagine what expertise she can now offer Iraq.

I talk often about "internecine warfare" within the Bush administration because my sources have told me about it. Now it is in the open for all to see. A furious Donald Rumsfeld, the defence secretary, previously in charge of the "reconstruction" of Iraq, was not even told that Rice was taking over some of his duties (presumably no one in the White House had the courage to tell him to his face). "I said I don't know," he spluttered, when asked about the changes. "Isn't that clear? You don't understand English? I was not there for the backgrounding." Now he says the changes are mere "fine-tuning".

The problem for both Bush and Rice is that their colleagues are all heavyweights. There is the vice-president, Dick Cheney, who is determined to take the foremost role in foreign policy (and deliver speeches on the subject that are careless with the truth); he has also been a chief of staff at the White House and a defence secretary. Rummy, too, has been a White House chief of staff and a defence secretary once before, and was Cheney's mentor. Colin Powell, the hitherto beleaguered secretary of state, was national security adviser under Reagan and chairman of the joint chiefs of staff under the first President Bush. Rice, who is younger and much less experienced, will have a tough time cracking the whip on any of these three old hands.

The dominance of these figures takes us back to the decision, forced through by Rummy, that the Pentagon should be in charge of "reconstruction" in Iraq. General Jay Garner, a chum whom Rumsfeld first appointed to be in charge of postwar Iraq, plunged the nation into mayhem when the clean-up should have been fast and furious. Rumsfeld and Cheney initially won the battle to take control of postwar Iraq, and Powell lost. But with Rice in charge, Powell has already seized the opportunity to double the state department's presence in Iraq from 55 staff to 110.

Rice, thrown into the Washington turf war without a lifeline, will be expected to mediate between Rumsfeld, Cheney and Powell - and be partly in charge of Paul Bremer, the US envoy in Iraq, who had been under Rumsfeld's sole control. In particular, Rice will have to sort out the practice of Rumsfeld's men giving huge contracts to American oil and defence companies without tendering - most especially to Cheney's old firm, Halliburton. Will she have the clout to change all that? And when Rumsfeld insists that 130,000 troops are all that is needed in Iraq, will she have the courage and ability to question that, too?