Andrew Stephen - Bush relaxes while soldiers die

Iraq - George W Bush took five days' holiday at his Texas ranch while the rest of America was at wor

President George W Bush still doesn't get it. "This violence we've seen," he said on Easter Sunday, "is part of a few people trying to stop progress toward democracy." Of course it is only a few people, relatively speaking, who are killing US soldiers: it is certainly not every one of Iraq's 23 million people creating mayhem, just as it was not all Northern Ireland's 1.6 million when violence steadily killed thousands there. But the line British politicians stuck to doggedly over the years - that those creating violence in Northern Ireland were a tiny minority shunned by the majority - is the doomed one that has now taken hold in the Bush administration over Iraq.

We are told that Bush emerged from seeing injured soldiers at the Fort Hood army barracks "red-eyed", but for a man who started such a devastating war, he seems to be regarding his presidential duties with remarkable insouciance. He took five days' holiday at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, for Easter, a time when the rest of America gets no time off and when the worst was also happening in Iraq. The television footage that came out of Crawford was disastrous for Bush; he seemed to be relaxed and enjoying his holiday, completely detached from the horrors of Iraq in which his soldiers were dying.

Following the declassification of Bush's 470-word CIA daily briefing of 6 August 2001, warning that Osama Bin Laden was wanting to strike domestically against the US, Bush's mantra is that he would have taken action if he had been given specifics of the impending 11 September atrocities. But still the weight of evidence is building against Bush (and, it has to be said, Bill Clinton) that their administrations could have taken action to prevent the atrocities. That 6 August memo alone warned that Bin Laden had wanted to attack the US domestically for four years, that al-Qaeda members, among them US citizens, had been in the US for years, that the FBI had observed preparations for hijackings plus the surveillance of New York buildings, and that as recently as May an informant from the United Arab Emirates had reported that al-Qaeda planned attacks against America with explosives.

Given all this, it is not outrageous to believe that a more alert US president, on receiving those warnings, could have mobilised all his intelligence agencies. As early as 1999, the National Security Agency was wiretapping two of the al-Qaeda operatives who were on the plane

that hit the Pentagon. The CIA knew that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the 9/11 mastermind, was in the US, that he was related to a man previously convicted of bombing the World Trade Center, and had attended the al-Qaeda summit in Kuala Lumpur in 2000. The FBI did not follow up internal recommendations that it investigate al-Qaeda suspects going to flight schools. But Bush gave no such orders in the first place.

How will this affect Bush's chances in November? I believe that if the proposed "handover" to the Iraqi Governing Council on 30 June can be depicted here as successful, Bush can start to dig his way out of the mire.

Iraq is a bell-wether as to the fortunes of Bush and John Kerry. Kerry plans his major onslaught against Bush to be on the economy, but news there is slowly improving for Bush: Kerry meanwhile has been extremely reluctant to lash out against Bush on Iraq.

Kerry has had shoulder surgery and won't be able to shake hands properly on campaign stops for weeks to come. He remains hopelessly behind Bush when it comes to money: those ads seeking to define Kerry as a high-taxing liberal continue to spew out on to the airwaves across America. The latest attack against him concerns his Catholicism - that he remains a Catholic communicant and says he is opposed to abortion, but supports pro-abortion legislation.

Yet Kerry can take satisfaction from the latest polls. A Newsweek poll shows that only 36 per cent are satisfied with "the way things are going in the country", while 59 per cent say they are dissatisfied. Forty per cent look on Bush favourably - the lowest ever - while the equivalent for Kerry is 51 per cent. At least half disapprove of Bush's handling of Iraq and the economy, but - and this is an important but - 59 per cent still approve of his war against terrorism.

The November election will turn on Iraq. If Bush continues to look happily out of touch in Crawford while soldiers are dying, he will lose. But, by November, the administration can shift blame for Iraq on to Iraqis rather than Americans: Iraq will stop being crucial electorally and Kerry will go back to being that high-taxing liberal. And the inaction after 6 August? Playing the Washington cover-your-ass game as ever, Bush hinted that others should have been taking action. "That," he said, "is what we expect the FBI to do."

Whether he chooses to or not, when it comes to Iraq, George W Bush simply doesn't get it. Still.

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