Now Dubbya shifts into reverse gear

Iraq handover - The Bush administration, having lost control of events, is unravelling, with even me

You read it first here. A fortnight ago, I wrote about the collapse of George W Bush's foreign policy, and last Monday the Washington Post and New York Times - clearly taking their cue from the NS - published major pieces saying the same thing. As I read them last Monday, I was listening to Bush and Blair giving a press conference from Turkey. I have rarely heard Bush sounding so beaten and exhausted: perhaps it was past his famously early bedtime, but my guess is that he has been told by his courtiers that he is dangerously close to facing defeat in the presidential elections this November.

I suspect that if Bush is beaten this year - and, at this stage, I would still not put good money on that happening - history may recall the last two weeks of June as the period when the Bush administration started to unravel.

Americans are belatedly beginning to see that Bush's Iraq policy is disastrous, and I suspect they are not fooled by the early "handover of sovereignty", as we are obliged to call the latest desperate political gambit by the administration. A late-June poll by the Washington Post found that only 39 per cent of Americans polled were willing to describe Bush as "honest and trustworthy". John Kerry, in contrast, scored a surprisingly high rating of 52 per cent.

You see little signs everywhere. I went to the first 11.30am showing of Fahrenheit 9/11 on the day it opened here, for example, and was surprised to see an old friend at the same screening - the wife of a former Republican senator who was very senior and influential in his day. There are few more staunchly Republican families in Washington, DC, but my friend now supports Michael Moore more than she does the 43rd president of the United States.

"Bush is trying to run this country on fear," she said, referring to his frequent invocations to Americans to be vigilant against the terrorists who are supposedly always trying to blow up America. "I will vote for Kerry," she added decisively.

Or take Dick Cheney. He was having a photocall with some members of the Senate on the House floor the other day, when Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy crossed to the Republican side to talk to the vice-president. A few days earlier, Leahy had been critical of Cheney's role in the Halliburton saga. "Go fuck yourself," Cheney charmingly told Leahy. Even more revealing was Cheney's later acknowledgement of his bad behaviour on Fox News (of course). He looked like a little boy, proud and grinning bashfully; it remains to be seen whether America's Bible Belt voters see it in the same way. They, I think, will have been genuinely shocked by his foul mouth. By showing such schoolboy pride about his transgression, people like him are illustrating how increasingly out of touch with reality they are.

So are they losing it? I think they probably are. Two years ago, Bush was revelling in his self-image as a "war president" (he still refers to himself, quite outrageously, as just that) - and told military cadets at West Point: "We must take the battle to the enemy, disrupt his plans, and confront the worst threats before they emerge. In the world we have entered, the only path to safety is the path of action. And this nation will act." Now the policy of such US pre-emption lies in tatters.

A year after that speech, even more scandalously, Bush publicly issued a challenge to Iraqis and others opposed to the US occupation. "Bring 'em on," he said, John Wayne-style. Today, however, the number of Americans killed in Iraq hovers around 900, the vast majority having died since their president encouraged their foes to start battling with US troops.

The three main planks given by the Bush administration for the invasion of Iraq - that Saddam Hussein was harbouring weapons of mass destruction, that there were close ties between al-Qaeda and Iraq, and that America had a chance to make Baghdad a fountain of democracy that would flow through the Middle East - have all exploded in terrible bloodshed. The Bush administration's fervent hope - that more mayhem in Iraq will now be blamed by the American public on Iraqis, and that there will be fewer American deaths - hangs in a desperate balance with the casual killings by US soldiers in Baghdad.

Would-be Texas cowboys of Bush and Cheney's kind cannot express humility when they know they have done wrong. Contrition of any kind is un-American, and certainly foreign to this administration. Bush was very slow to apologise for the Abu Ghraib prison scandals, and then did so ungraciously. The Geneva Conventions require that prisoners of war be released when an occupation ends unless they are charged with a specific crime, but the Iraqi POWs remain in US custody. It seems likely that the breathtaking arrogance of the administration, in thinking that it is above international treaties even when the United States is a signatory to those treaties, will end in tears.

Americans tend to look on their own courts as the only arbiters of what they do in the world - international courts are foreign commie nonsense that cannot impinge on America, by definition - but it seems likely that this attitude, too, will go the way of other philosophies once held so dear by the administration.

No fewer than 37 POWs have died in US custody in Iraq and Afghanistan, the vast majority killed by deliberately exposing them to extremes of heat. Will we ever get a real inquiry into these deaths?

We also heard a new US Supreme Court decision on the day that sovereignty was supposedly handed over to Iraqis: that hundreds of prisoners held in Guantanamo can have recourse to US courts. Does that mean the administration will allow lawyers to fly into Guantanamo to represent prisoners? That prisoners will be flown to the US to have their day in court? Most of the current nine members of the Supreme Court are supine supporters of Bush, so the decision was unexpected. With it, the whole basis for keeping prisoners in Guantanamo has collapsed, and the administration will have to sort all this out while trying not to lose face with the American public.

The US viceroy in Iraq until 28 June, L Paul Bremer, bequeathed to Iraqis a legacy of 97 changes to Iraqi law. Never has the ideological simplicity of this administration been laid so bare: thanks to Bremer, it is now law in Iraq that taxation will not rise above 15 per cent; it is also law to drive with both hands on the steering wheel. Give them laws like ours, goes the reasoning, and they will all be grateful sooner or later for the imposition of such inspiring, US-style democracy.

Or not. The White House is in reverse gear. Calling in Nato, getting UN resolutions, appealing to the international community: all are signs that the Bush administration has been stripped bare by events which, increasingly, it cannot control. Yet although the Bush team may be ideologically destitute, when it comes to political dirty tricks, they are still a ruthless bunch. Perhaps, in their desperation, even more so now.

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