Apocalypse now? Part 2: The White House

The President has few options

Spring in central Texas is the loveliest season, when the fields are carpeted with bluebonnet wild flowers and the blistering heat of summer is still months away. But that will be scant comfort for George W Bush during this Easter holiday at the ranch he calls Prairie Chapel.

Spring in central Texas is the loveliest season, when the fields are carpeted with bluebonnet wild flowers and the blistering heat of summer is still months away. But that will be scant comfort for George W Bush during this Easter holiday at the ranch he calls Prairie Chapel.

In the all-embracing "war against terror", stretching from 11 September 2001 to the plains of Iraq today, this has been his rockiest week. On Thursday, over the President's initial vehement objections, his National Security Adviser, Condoleezza Rice, testified under oath to the special commission investigating the 9/11 attacks, obliged to defend her boss in the one area he had seemed impregnable, as the super-vigilant foe of global terrorism. By common consent she made a pretty good fist of it.

Even so, the White House may not be home free. Despite separate objections by the President, at week's end his aides were preparing to make public the text of the top-secret President's Daily Briefing for 6 August 2001, which contained an assessment of the threat posed by al-Qa'ida. Ms Rice says the document merely assembled existing information, but some suspect it may have contained new warnings of an impending attack. By and large, however, she countered the central charge of her former counter-terrorism deputy, Richard Clarke, that the Bush team was asleep at the wheel in the months before the attacks on New York and Washington.

Alas for the President, the great Condi show, so keenly anticipated by connoisseurs of Washington scandal, was by Thursday a mere side-show to the real drama playing out 5,000 miles away. As she duelled with the commission members, the on-screen "crawls" beneath her face on the cable news channels told the true story of the day - the urban warfare, hostage-taking and general mayhem across Iraq, all part of an unravelling of US policy that could cost Mr Bush the presidency in November.

Caution is in order. Whatever Edward Kennedy may say, this is not "George W Bush's Vietnam" - or not yet. Support for the war in Iraq has waned since the invasion a year ago, but public opinion has not turned decisively against it. Nor are military casualties yet the potential tipping point, even though last week they were at a rate reminiscent of Vietnam.

That war, however, lasted eight years and took 55,000 American lives. In the year since the Iraq invasion, about 650 US servicemen have been killed. For now, the American public - hardened by 9/11 and the real and fictional violence served up daily on TV - seem less concerned about the losses than do the generals and politicians.

Moreover, Democrats, are having a hard job making political capital out of Iraq. As US troops wage pitched battles, politicians of both stripes dare not be seen to be deserting them. Complicating matters further, John Kerry, the party's designate to face Mr Bush this autumn, backed the war in the crucial Congressional resolution of October 2002, and has been trying to reconcile that vote with his criticism of the White House's handling of the war ever since.

Even now, as he denounces Mr Bush as "arrogant" and "inept", Mr Kerry struggles to say what he would do differently, beyond vague formulations about "bringing in the United Nations" and mending fences with estranged US allies. By a small margin, Americans still believe it was right to invade.

But if the chaos continues, something will have to give. Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and the neo-conservatives maintain that this upsurge of violence was expected, and that the insurgents are a small minority. But the endless pictures of smoke plumes rising over Iraqi cities and gunmen in the streets give the lie to the Pentagon's claims that foreign terrorists and "dead-enders" loyal to the vanished Baathist regime alone were behind the resistance.

As Fallujah, Najaf and Kut turn into battle zones, as Sunnis and Shias start to make common cause and nervous GIs no longer know who is friend and who is foe, the question soon will be unavoidable: what on earth is America doing there?

As he mulls the crisis this weekend, with the November election less than seven months off, Mr Bush has nothing but bad and less bad military and political options. He can stick to the 30 June deadline for the transfer of sovereignty to Iraqis, but to which Iraqis? And how will they maintain security, when the newly trained Iraqi security force the Americans have set up is unwilling or unable to restore order? Or Mr Bush can put back the date - and extend an occupation that many Iraqis plainly detest.

Either way, more troops will have to be sent to reinforce the 135,000 already in Iraq, at a time when almost half of all Americans think US forces should be withdrawn. On Friday, as yet another explosion rocked the centre of Baghdad, Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt, the chief US military spokesman, solemnly announced that "the coalition is in firm control of Baghdad". Wasn't that supposed to have been settled a year ago?

But the President shows no sign of changing tack. The US will "stay the course" in Iraq, Mr Bush says. Even assuming the violence is brought under control, the underlying dynamic in Iraq has surely changed on a lasting basis. From the White House, however, the message never varies. The very notion that the US might have made mistakes never seems to cross anyone's mind, let alone being publicly acknowledged.

At the end of her testimony on Capitol Hill, Ms Rice vigorously defended the doctrine of pre-emptive strikes against "rogue" states, and depicted the invasion of Iraq as an unmitigated good. It was left to commissioner and former Nebraska senator Bob Kerrey - a Vietnam war hero who initially supported the war - to point out the obvious. The US was leading a largely Christian army in a Muslim nation, in a campaign that would only stoke hatred in the Islamic world and recruit new terrorists to the anti-American cause.

Current US military tactics, he warned, were going to have a number of consequences, "all of them bad". His words were a statement, not a question, and they went virtually unnoticed. But for George Bush, they could be a harbinger of a terrible day of political reckoning ahead.

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