Has America begun to think again?

Iraq one year on - Until recently, George W Bush's attempts to play the patriotic card had been succ

It was to be very moving. President Bush would stand on the site of the 11 September 2001 atrocities in New York, mourning the victims and showing himself once again to be a great wartime leader who does not shrink from the difficult tasks ahead of him. It was to be the most memorable tableau of the 2004 Republican National Convention - conveniently held in New York and even running into the anniversary month of September, just two months before voters went to the polls in the presidential election and a few days before the contest officially started. It was to be the early high point of an electoral campaign that would wrap Bush and the nation in the Stars and Stripes - and see him swept back into the White House by a nation awash in patriotism.

That, at least, was how Republican strategists planned it. Bush and his team have always seen national security as the issue on which he would win re-election; his supposed strong leadership that took America into war a year ago was to be the driving undercurrent of the plan.

But one year on, moods have changed - and earlier this month the Bush team got a shock. They started running television campaign ads against John Kerry, depicting Bush as a great leader to the accompaniment of scenes of the World Trade Center carnage. Instead of being acclaimed by patriotic Americans, however, the adverts were bitterly criticised. Relatives of 9/11 victims protested that their loved ones were being used for political purposes. Most surprising and damaging of all to the Bush campaign, the nation's firefighters protested strongly that they did not want to be used in such a way. It is doubtful whether the moving scene in Lower Manhattan will now take place in the way planned: the Bush campaign strategy for re-election may have been derailed almost before it started.

This would not have happened, I suspect, just three months ago. Undercurrents of dissatisfaction with Bush as a wartime leader (as he describes himself) bubbled to the surface only towards the end of last year, when Howard Dean was the front-runner in the Democratic primaries. His anger against Bush and the war - barely articulated by anyone in the mainstream of American life before then - suddenly struck a chord.

Dean made it respectable to attack Bush and his war in Iraq. The president's morality could be questioned. He could be depicted as a president who launched a deadly war to enhance his own image. Dean was the American who unlocked the gates to the kind of anti-war feeling that was prevalent in Britain from the beginning of the Iraq invasion, and only then did Bush-as-bungler suddenly became an openly acceptable political view to espouse.

Dean thus put backbone into the hitherto quiescent Democratic Party, and all nine of his fellow Democratic primary candidates realised that it was in their interests to turn vehemently against the war and take more than half the country with them - even though some, most notably Kerry, had gone so far as to vote for the war resolution in the US Senate.

With the bubble burst, it became open season on George W Bush for the first time since 9/11: in a poll published this month, 79 per cent rated his handling of the economy as fair or poor. The latest Gallup poll shows that Americans are now evenly divided over the merits of the war. And in a poll that would have seemed astonishing just a few months ago, only 40 per cent of the nation think the country is heading in the right direction. For the first time since 9/11, Bush can no longer easily play the patriotic card, and faces serious domestic problems not directly connected with the hitherto all-important war.

The period from 11 September 2001 until late last year was a continuum of unquestioned solidarity with the rulers of the day; I suspect it would have been similar had Al Gore been elected president instead, although Bush has certainly never been reluctant to wrap himself in the flag. The quick strike against the Taliban in Aghanistan never seemed quite enough revenge, and the neo-cons in the Bush administration - led by Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz - duly whipped up anti-Saddam feeling both within the administration and the country.

There were a few doubts expressed here and there before the invasion, but after Colin Powell delivered his lecture to the UN Security Council on Saddam's supposed hordes of WMDs on 5 February last year, they started to subside. And the moment the first cruise missiles rained on Baghdad, it became incumbent to support unquestioningly the Bush administration and everything it did; any words or criticisms of the war were treated as traitorous. The French became real hate figures, with Congress itself changing the name on its menus from "French fries" to "freedom fries". Such, lest we forget, was the atmosphere in America a year ago.

I remember once being stopped by a motorcade leaving Cheney's official residence at this time, and the perfectly sane American woman with me in the car started to cheer as the vice-president's balding face passed by in his limousine - sandwiched by secret service men hanging out of the windows with sub-machine guns. You could practically smell the macho spirit in the air, and it was up to every patriotic American to clamber on to the war bandwagon. Never before did Emerson's words of 150 years ago - lambasting "this shallow Americanism" with its passion for sudden success - seem so apposite to those who doubted the wisdom of the invasion from the beginning. But the happy, simplistic ending of a Hollywood movie seemed to Americans to be the outcome of the invasion when Saddam's statue was hauled down last April.

However, since the end of the year there has come a belated and almost subliminal belief that all is not well with the situation in Iraq. The word "quagmire" started to be used. American casualty figures - at the latest count, well over 500 killed and more than 3,000 wounded - started to grow.

Worst of all for the Bush administration was the mounting debate that had been prevalent in Britain for months, that of the non-appearing WMDs. David Kay, the former UN arms inspector who became Bush's man to find the WMDs, reported unequivocally that they were not going to be found - words that have had a profound effect on American public opinion. The word "liar" started to be used of George Bush in a way that it has not been used even of Tony Blair.

The media, obediently mute until the end of last year, started openly to explore the issues. There was what one retired air force colonel described as an "expectation-reality mismatch" suddenly forced out in the open.

Reinforcing all this so far this year has been the Democratic primary season, which has helped to reverse the mood of jubilation of a year ago. Taking their cue from the imploded Dean, candidates such as Kerry started to hammer away at Bush's handling of the war and, in particular, its aftermath; the Democratic Party leadership (not Kerry) raised the issue of Bush having possibly gone AWOL from his National Guard duties during Vietnam, contrasting the murkiness of Bush's military service with Kerry's Vietnam heroics.

Bush's State of the Union address and a rare, hour-long television interview from the Oval Office that he did with Tim Russert of NBC were not successes; he looked rather as he did prior to 11 September 2001, when he had record low ratings from the public at that time in a presidency.

Thus America's fondness for instant gratification, be it in the field of fast food or wars, was sated only temporarily by the invasion of Iraq a year ago. Post-invasion joy turned for many into a reluctant realisation that the aftermath of the war had been inadequately planned by the Bush administration and that the neo-cons had conned much of the world into believing that a vast horde of WMDs was to be found in Iraq.

It took an obscure governor of Vermont, Howard Dean, to bring out into the open all the dissatisfactions that could then openly be expressed - and thus the mood of a year ago rapidly started to change.

And the future? The hostile reception to the Bush campaign ads featuring the 9/11 atrocities shows that the president cannot automatically expect to romp to a re-election victory on Iraq - that the issue, with Kerry now throwing in his experience in Vietnam at every opportunity, is on a knife edge as far as November's elections are concerned.

Interest in Iraq here, it has to be said, is meanwhile waning. Iraqi casualties are hardly noticed, but the decreasing toll on Americans in Iraq is; last Monday's signing of an interim constitution by the Iraqi Governing Council was greeted with the reaction that Iraqis themselves are at last taking responsibility for their own wretched little country.

But it has been a painful year for America since those first cruise missiles were unleashed on Iraq: from jubilation after what seemed to be a quick victory to a slow realisation that 2003 did not mark one of the more glorious episodes in American history. The Bush campaign team may yet prevail in their portrayal of Bush as a historic war leader, but thanks to Howard Dean, the issues of jobs and the economy are more likely now to be factors in the election. In the year since the invasion started, much of American public opinion has turned full circle over an issue that not long ago was to have swept Bush back into the White House: and the nation, as it was before 11 September 2001, is back to being split right down the middle.