I saw Donald Rumsfeld on the day that 15 soldiers were killed when a CH-47 Chinook helicopter was brought down over Iraq, and he was laughing. I am not suggesting that the US secretary of defence should look theatrically glum every time a disaster happens, but his apparent detachment seemed symbolic of the increasing disconnection between the wishful thinking of the Bush administration on Iraq and the reality of what is happening there. As a result, I could not bring myself to go over to talk to him. Just an hour before, he had grimly told a television audience: "In a long, hard war, we're going to have tragic days. But they're necessary. They're part of a war that's difficult and complicated."
Rumsfeld - like many would-be John Waynes, a shorter man than he comes across as on television - is the very personification of the political infighting and frantic repositioning that is going on in Washington. In public, he hones his tough-guy image with talk of "necessary" American deaths; in private, he leaks memos that talk of "mixed results" against al-Qaeda and "somewhat slower progress" against the Taliban. It will all be a "long, hard slog", he says in one recent memo. In other words, when the history of this gigantic mess comes to be written, he can claim that he read it right all along.
Meanwhile, an average of around 35 attacks are launched against US soldiers every day, with at least five dying a week; 338 have been killed and 1,289 wounded so far in Iraq, with 22 killed in the first three days of November alone. More have died since President Bush declared "major hostilities" to be over than before. But the disconnected Boy George sees what Rumsfeld calls the "necessary" deaths as a hopeful sign: "The more progress we make on the ground," he says, " . . . the more desperate these killers become." Bush chose to attend a fundraising campaign in Alabama the day after the Chinook tragedy, telling a meeting that raised $1.85m for his re-election coffers that "America will never run" from Iraq.
But that is precisely what US policy towards Iraq is now morphing towards. The more American deaths there are, the more "Iraqification" becomes a re-election imperative for the Bush administration. A month ago Paul Bremer, the chief US administrator in Baghdad, said 60,000 Iraqis had been trained to take over law and order duties; three weeks later Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser and supposedly now the administration's mastermind on Iraq, came up with the figure of "85,000 and growing". Paul Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld's deputy (who escaped death when the Al Rashid hotel in Baghdad was attacked last month), said on the same day that the figure was "some 80,000 to 90,000".
When Boy George was asked if the same number of US troops (130,000) would be in Iraq a year from now (when the election will be over), he replied that it was a "trick question". He glared and refused to answer when a similar question was yelled at him in Alabama.
Thus the disjunction between policy statements and the Iraqi reality merges with hard-headed, electoral self-interest. The line is that American deaths are sad but "necessary" because Iraq is speedily returning to normality under US occupation, despite the activities of a handful of pesky terrorists. It will be possible to reduce the military presence on schedule to less than half its present levels by next spring and even more so by autumn. Iraqis will move into the roles of peacekeepers and, in so doing, take the brunt of casualties. By then the oil will have started to flow and the US will be the beneficiary of the oil bounty to come. And (this is truly the hard-headed bit) Bush will romp to victory in the elections in November. It's very simple, really.
But the public is not altogether buying the disconnected line. A poll taken before the Chinook was brought down showed that 87 per cent fear the US will become bogged down in Iraq. Bush has squandered much of the goodwill that came after the atrocities of 11 September; now 51 per cent disapprove of his handling of Iraq, the first time more disapprove than approve. Senator John McCain, the Republican Vietnam war hero, says: "This is the first time I have seen a parallel to Vietnam." He was referring not so much to the casualties, but to the disconnection between what the public is being told and what is really happening.
In planning the invasion of Iraq, the Bush administration put its faith in Ahmad Chalabi, a dodgy businessman who had not lived in Iraq since the 1950s; simultaneously, Rumsfeld was ignoring warnings from his then army chief of staff, General Eric Shinseki, that "several hundred thousand" troops would be required to keep the peace. After 22 American deaths in three days, it is easy to see why President Bush and his hardliners are refusing to acknowledge the link between those tragic, "necessary" deaths and their very own policies.