Here, at last, was President Bush firmly in charge. Showing the nation a reassuring calmness and strength in times of crisis, when lesser souls panic. Flying dramatically in Air Force One to the US Northern Command HQ in Colorado to take the helm personally, no less, to deal with Hurricane Rita; addressing the nation for 26 minutes in a specially floodlit New Orleans, showing just how much he meant action by appearing in shirtsleeves.
Not so long ago, these kinds of stunts worked for George Bush. But Rita turned out to be a damp squib compared with Katrina and the “warm tungsten lighting” his handlers had prepared for him in front of St Louis Cathedral in New Orleans gave him a peculiarly sickly green fake pallor instead. More indelible images prevail: Bush strumming his guitar at a Republican fundraiser in California while New Orleans flooded, or Cindy Sheehan being carried away by police for demonstrating against the Iraq war in front of the White House.
The result is a seismic political shift that is going largely unnoticed. Bush’s poll ratings have plummeted, but much more significant for the long term – and for the Iraq war especially – is that his hitherto solid bedrock base on the right is splintering, like the earthquake that was always inevitable but never properly anticipated. “He’s toast,” a posh lady told me at a party on diplomatic row in Washington at the weekend.
Ironically, it took a domestic disaster such as Katrina, rather than the international calamity of Iraq, to erode the base that brought Bush to power: even ardent neo-cons are starting to desert the sinking ship, if only privately for the time being. Fifty-four per cent of Americans were opposed to the war in Iraq in the week before Katrina struck; immediately afterwards, that jumped to 66 per cent. The parallels between Iraq and Katrina are unnerving: “We will do what it takes. We will not leave until the job is done,” Bush said of Iraq on 4 February last year. “We will do what it takes. We will stay as long as it takes,” he said when he belatedly woke up to what Katrina had done.
But the rhetorical tricks and sleights of hand that worked so well following the 11 September 2001 atrocities now sound desperate, most clearly so when he tries to link Iraq with Katrina. “Terrorists,” he told a Jewish audience in Washington, are “the kind of people who look at Katrina and wish they had caused it. We’re in a war against these people. It’s a war on terror.” Thus Bush’s disconnect, the writing of scripts that do not accord with reality, perpetuates itself. Eerily, firms with strong Republican links that were given huge reconstruction contracts in Iraq, such as Halliburton and its subsidiaries, are being awarded similar contracts in Louisiana and Mississippi; in the past year, Halliburton’s stock has risen from the $30 mark to over $68, while the number of US fatalities in Iraq has also doubled.
The mass desertion of Bush by the right, however, is nothing to do with these moral rights and wrongs. Like so much in America, it boils down to money. Bush pressed all the wrong buttons for the right when he ordered a $200bn reconstruction of New Orleans. “Now anybody that lived there is going to be a multimillionaire,” grumbled the distinctly unappealing Donald Trump. I pointed out in these columns after Katrina struck that the US is built on the principle of having governmental power as limited as possible: now the right feels free to dismiss Bush as a big-government big spender whose solution to disasters such as Iraq or Katrina is to pour yet more billions into them.
This dissatisfaction is gathering momentum, with the kind of private rumbles among Republicans that I have documented here coming out into the open: that Bush has never vetoed one congressional spending bill, that the federal government is spending 33 per cent more than when he took office, and so on. I sit on the board of a non-profit institution in Washington and was astonished to hear a fellow member decry the organisation’s spending on a diversity programme. “It’s like Iraq,” he said, spitting out the words. “It’s like the hurricane. It’s . . .” – here he paused to muster courage for the coup de grace – “it’s socialism.” I watched a fellow board member and very senior member of the Bush administration, who already seems to be becoming a private dissident, nodding silently in agreement.
“The shit will hit the fan on the question of who will pay [for the Katrina bill] or whether there will be tax cuts,” Francis Fukuyama, the maverick neo-con academic and author, who opposes the Iraq war, told me last week. He is based at the Paul H Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, spiritual home of the likes of Paul Wolfowitz and Fouad Ajami, sometime adviser to Condoleezza Rice. “Bush is a lame duck anyway and it’s going to be all downhill from now,” another prominent neo-con (and former gung-ho supporter of the Iraq war) said to me the same day. I’m told that David Frum, symbolically the author of Bush’s “axis of evil” phrase, is preparing to jump ship, too.
What all this means is that Bush has come to a crossroads over Iraq. He rightly believes that his decision to invade will be seen as the defining event of his presidency and he is obsessed with how history will view him; yet without those tricks he is nothing, stripped bare of the deceit that he represents values and principles. In his own immortal words at the Pentagon a few days ago: “Listen, there are differences of opinion about the way forward.”
But reality is closing in on him. The likes of Donald Rumsfeld are lying conspicuously low. The right is clamouring that the president must halt implementation of the Medicare prescription drugs programme. Very soon the country will pass the milestone of 2,000 Americans killed in Iraq. Even to most of Bush’s supporters, it is not a question of whether the US will leave Iraq, but when. Yet Bush treasures the idea of that legacy. He wants to be seen as a hero and has increasing difficulty distinguishing between fond visions and reality. Even to begin to know the future in Iraq, we must therefore delve deep into the psyche of George W Bush. And therein lie dangerously uncharted waters.