The pro-war camp is struck dumb

Washington is at fever pitch over the torture revelations. Yet beyond the Beltway, many Americans ma

How the mighty are fallen. Just about the only member of the Bush administration who does not seem to regard recent events in Iraq as catastrophic is Boy George himself - and he, like Richard Nixon, does not read newspapers but relies on courtiers to keep him informed. From the arch-hawk Dick Cheney ("they will welcome as liberators the United States" - 16 March 2003), we have heard very little: just a brief interview with Fox News Radio in which he said that the release of more prison torture photographs should be handled in "an intelligent, reasonable fashion". Always a reasoning man, our Dick.

And despite his bluster, Donald Rumsfeld ("I've stopped reading the newspapers" - 13 May 2004) now looks a broken old man. His deputy, Paul Wolfowitz ("Like the people of France in the 1940s, they view us as their hoped-for liberator" - 11 March 2003), looks more desperate and ineffectual by the hour. Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, has been conspicuous by her absence (in Russia, among other places). Colin Powell, the only member of the administration who had doubts about the invasion of Iraq in the first place, has also been travelling abroad and is now quite open about his anger ("When I made that presentation in February 2003, it was based on the best information that the Central Intelligence Agency made available to me . . . It turned out that the sourcing was inaccurate and wrong and, in some cases, deliberately misleading. And for that, I am disappointed, and I regret it" - 16 May 2004).

In the turbulence of Washington, DC these days, you might expect triumphalist hubris from those who opposed the war in the first place, but it has been remarkably muted. Some Democrats have weighed in hard on Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz at congressional committee hearings, but mostly, these two have been left to twist slowly in the wind over their wretched miscalculations. The performance of Wolfowitz in particular ("no one should have expected a cakewalk" - 14 May 2004) has been almost unbelievably poor: last month, he said "approximately 500" US troops had been killed in Iraq. The true total is nearing 800.

He also acknowledged to one of the committees that, despite the revelations of torture and increasing evidence that orders to the US prison officers in Baghdad came from the top, he had not read the official "Interrogation Rules of Engagement" - again, seemingly so out of touch with reality that he clearly did not know the document had been released to the public three days previously and had appeared in newspapers. The men in uniform are no better: General Peter Pace, vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made the same admission.

The cheerleaders of the invasion have also been remarkably quiet amid all the political bloodshed and intense gossip. We have not heard from Richard Perle ("Support for Saddam, including within his military organisation, will collapse at the first whiff of gunpowder" - 11 July 2002) or Ken Adelman, a former ambassador to the UN ("liberating Iraq would be a cakewalk" - 13 February 2002), or even from Christopher Hitchens ("This will be no war . . . And I say, bring it on" - 28 January 2003). It has been left to a handful of other right-wing journalists to write mea culpa columns admitting they got it wrong, something no member of the administration, with the exception of Powell, has come close to doing. Those who miscalculated Iraq so badly are behaving like a flock of ostriches: deny something not only publicly, but to yourself, too, and it will all come out all right in the end.

But the Democratic legislators have landed telling punches, amid all the administration's disarray. Senator Hillary Clinton told Wolfowitz that "you have made numerous predictions, time and time again, that have turned out to be untrue". And anyone who bothered to sit through the Senate hearings would have heard this dialogue from the armed forces committee:

Jack Reed, an obscure Democratic senator from Rhode Island, to Wolfowitz: "Sensory deprivation . . . a bag over your head for 72 hours. Do you think that's humane?"

Wolfowitz: "Let me come back to what you said, the work of this government - "

Reed: "No, no. Answer the question, Mr Secretary. Is that humane?"

Wolfowitz, looking increasingly desperate: "I don't know whether it means a bag over your head for 72 hours, senator."

Reed: "Mr Secretary, you're dissembling, non- responsive . . ."

Wolfowitz, staring uneasily at the carpet: "I believe it's not humane. It strikes me as not humane, senator."

Reed: "Thank you very much."

The truth is that practically everyone in Washington, Republican as well as Democrat, now believes the foray into Iraq has been disastrous. Rumsfeld is supported by very few; right-wing journalists have called for his resignation, though opinion polls show that most Americans think he should remain defence secretary. Being wise after the event(s) is now a Washington sport, practised by Republicans and Democrats alike.

Meanwhile, Bush is taking major hits in the opinion polls - though I suspect they would be much harder if his presumptive Democratic presidential opponent, John Kerry, were not running such a poor and ineffective campaign.

According to the latest CNN/Time opinion poll, Kerry would garner just 49 per cent of the vote on 2 November, Bush 44 per cent - and Ralph Nader 6 per cent. More people than not still believe that invading Iraq was the right thing to do, but the proportion declined to 48 per cent in the CNN/Time poll - compared with 53 per cent in April.

The bad news for Bush, doubtless not passed on to him by his courtiers, is that his standing is worse than that of either Jimmy Carter or George Bush Sr at this stage in their presidencies - and both of them went on to resounding defeats in the November elections. Dubbya's overall job rating fell from 49 to 46 per cent, and his disapproval rating rose from 47 per cent to 49 per cent.

Astonishingly, 48 per cent of Americans still believe that going to war in Iraq was the right thing to do. Yet, paradoxically, 56 per cent say that the war is not worth the cost in lives and money (the Bush administration has just this month asked Congress for a further $25bn to tide it over in Iraq and Afghanistan into next year).

The polls show that the Abu Ghraib torture has upset some Americans, 27 per cent of respondents saying they have become "less supportive" of the war in Iraq as a result. Fifty-five per cent of those polled said Bush is doing a poor job of handling Iraq, compared with 39 per cent who thought he was doing it well. Just 41 per cent believe the US is winning in Iraq, though 60 per cent said the US can prevail in the end.

Most worrying for the Bush-Cheney campaign in all this, however, is that only 49 per cent now think Bush is doing well in his war on terrorism, and 42 per cent think Kerry would do better. This is bad news for Bush, because being a successful "wartime" leader who is resolute against terrorism forms top card in his team's strategy for the presidential elections. If Kerry can overcome his inertia and poor campaigning, he could yet make serious inroads into Bush in this area.

But I suspect that Washington's hysteria over Iraq, and Abu Ghraib in particular, drops markedly outside the Beltway - after all, a bit of torture against enemies is taken in its stride by a people that massacred the Native Americans and then propagated slavery for centuries - and the main question is whether or not middle-ground voters in the 17 or 18 swing states will base their vote on the mess in Iraq.

The scenes of sexual debauchery among US soldiers, in fact, will probably affect conservative voters in the crucial Midwestern states more than those of the actual torture of Iraqis.

This viewpoint was expressed succinctly at the congressional hearings by Republican Senator James M Inhofe of Oklahoma, who was angry, angry, angry. "I'm probably not the only one up at this table," he spluttered on 11 May, "that is more outraged by the outrage than we are by the treatment." In the febrile atmosphere of Washington, Inhofe's words currently carry little weight among Democrats and most Republicans. But across the country, I suspect, they will resonate more than they do among the myriad new doubters in the nation's capital.

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