Bush and Blair, on a wing and a prayer

Andrew Stephen, our US editor, watches the leaders of Britain and America at their Camp David summit

It is always useful to see people in the flesh when they believe they are at a turning point in history. I will never forget the nervy body language of President Bush last 20 September, for example, just before he left the White House to deliver his address to both houses of Congress. And that is why I made the trek into the Catoctin Mountains to Camp David - to see Tony Blair and George Bush in action at the beginning of Blair's allowance of six hours on US soil. If you can see the whites of the men's eyes, I reason, you get a pretty good idea of what is going on in their heads.

And my conclusion? In a few minutes, both men showed that they are proponents of a policy that neither has much clue about; as each winged it, he exposed both his ignorance of the situation vis-a-vis Iraq and his willingness to go along with contradictory notions that have been hastily cobbled together, using pieces of string and rubber bands, by warring factions within the Bush administration. These were not reassuring moments.

In Blair's first words, for example, he said, with that hint of hesitant gaucheness he reserves for when he is in the presence of the US president: "We only need to look at the report from the International Atomic Energy Agency this morning, showing what has been going on at the former nuclear weapons sites . . ." Eh? Had I missed something? No: it turned out that Blair was referring to a story in the New York Times the previous day, which had then been recycled in the British press, and which Blair had doubtless read on his 777 on the way over (hence "this morning").

That New York Times news story, in fact, was several weeks old: it contained pictures from commercial satellites released by the IAEA last July and which could - just could - indicate new activity around plants where the Iraqis just could be manufacturing nuclear weapons. "There are some activities that could be part of prohibited activities, but we have nothing now that allows us to draw a conclusion," Jacques Baute, the French physicist in charge of the UN nuclear inspectors, was quoted as saying.

But as Blair continued blindly ("the policy of inaction is not a policy we can responsibly subscribe to"), Bush positively smirked with pleasure at the sight of a foreign leader at last being supportive of the administration hawks. Asked what evidence there was to go to war with Iraq, Bush winged it again: "We just heard the Prime Minister talk about the new report," he began, clearly believing he had just learnt something new and highly useful.

"I would remind you," he went on, "that when the inspectors first went into Iraq and were denied, finally denied, access, a report came out of the Atomic, the IAEA, that they were six months away from developing a weapon. I don't know what more evidence we need."

Now this really would have been a bombshell, if true. The problem is that it was not, although Blair - in open-necked dark blue shirt and jacket - was nodding in agreement. The 1998 IAEA report, in fact, said that Iraq was six months to two years away from nuclear capability before the 1991 Gulf war; but the war then destroyed much of Iraq's infrastructure, and UN nuclear inspectors had subsequently seen to it that Iraq turn over its highly enriched uranium and plutonium.

"Based on all credible information to date," the 1998 IAEA report actually said, "the IAEA has found no indication of Iraq having achieved its programme goal of producing nuclear weapons or of Iraq having retained a physical capability for the production of weapon-useable nuclear material or having clandestinely obtained such material."

What Bush claimed, in fact, was dead wrong. Yet Blair chimed in: "Absolutely right." A Freudian slip from Bush then followed: "A lot of people understand that this man has defied every UN resolution - 16 US [sic] resolutions he's ignored." Then he said again that "a lot of people understand he holds weapons of mass destruction", as though - despite expert opinions to the contrary - if this was repeated often enough, the assertion would bear the combined imprimatur of the US and UK governments and thereby become the unquestioned truth.

And so this past week has unfolded against a background of fact and fantasy. Following Blair here was Geoff Hoon, who again dwelt on the not-always requited love of Britons for America: "It is something deep within the psyches of both peoples - the absolute certainty that when times are hard, when we face threats, we know we will be there for one another," he insisted. (Where was the US during the Battle of Britain, Mr Hoon?) "That is a very special kind of friendship. For the peoples of two nations, I believe that it is unique."

A more sober, realpolitik view of the war-bugling came from Jacques Chirac: Saddam, he said, is a man who "is especially dangerous to his own people . . . I don't need to tell you that I condemn the regime in Iraq, naturally, for all the reasons we know, for all the dangers that it puts on the region and the tragedy it constitutes for the Iraqi people who are held hostage by it." But, asked about ousting Saddam, he replied: "I do wish for it, naturally. But a few principles and a little order are needed to run the affairs of the world." Quite. On 9 September, Bush held a summit with Jean Chretien of Canada, who later said that Bush had presented him with no new evidence of Iraq's culpability - and that if Iraq is to be pursued, it must be through the UN.

Domestically, too, the hastily strung together policies of Bush and Blair are increasingly being questioned. In particular, the repeated assertion that Iraq had some connection with the 11 September atrocities - a favourite of Dick Cheney's - has gained little traction, almost certainly for the reason that it is not true. That theory came about because of an alleged meeting in Prague in April 2001 between an Iraqi intelligence agent and Mohammed Atta, the leader of the 11 September attacks. The source is an Arab student now described as "not particularly reliable", so the administration - pace Cheney - is no longer pressing the argument that Iraq funds al-Qaeda.

Senator Bob Graham, the Democrat chairman of the Senate select committee on intelligence, and a man as straight as an arrow, is probably more informed on the true situation than any other member of Congress. Even he is now saying that the administration's focus on Iraq is distracting attention from the war against terrorism. He says that, by Bush's own criteria for that war - countries which were accomplices in the 11 September atrocities or provided safe havens for terrorists - Syria and Libya would be more logical targets. "By those two standards [of Bush]," he says, "Iraq does not make it very high on the list." He warns: "Avoid the allure of distractions. At this point, I think Iraq is a primary distraction from achieving our goals or reducing the threat of international terrorism."

For all these reasons, I have serious misgivings about Blair's much-awaited "dossier" on the compelling reasons why war should commence against Iraq. I suspect there will be little if any information linking Iraq to the 11 September attacks, or to any other terrorist attacks against the west. But there will be much material of dubious authenticity (like that IAEA "report") seeking to show that Iraq is working on chemical and biological warfare programmes, and is attempting to acquire nuclear capabilities. In short, it will paint a picture of Iraq as it was on 10 September last year. Nothing has changed.

All of which begs the question: why Iraq? Senior Democrats and Republicans have said that war against Iraq will have little or nothing to do with America's war against terrorism. The International Institute for Strategic Studies in London says that Saddam lacks the nuclear material for a bomb. Practically every US ally has either come out against the use of force on Iraq, or said that it must be sanctioned by the UN; Germany, which has more troops engaged with US troops in peacekeeping missions around the world than any other country, is firmly against war.

Looking back on that Saturday afternoon at Camp David, it seems frightening that two such ordinary men should be basing so much on so little. Having firmly set off down their respective paths - the US as the unquestioned superpower in whose way nobody will stand, and Britain as the facilitator of American aggression - it seems that nothing can or will stop them now. A juggernaut is careering out of control, and even the UN will have its work cut out to restrain its inexorable force.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.

This article first appeared in the 16 September 2002 issue of the New Statesman, Bush and Blair, on a wing and a prayer