No American president could have asked for a greater outpouring of international support than George Bush after the 11 September attacks on New York and Washington. The French newspaper Le Monde declared: "We are all Americans"; Nato passed a resolution saying it considered the attacks to be a blow against the alliance as a whole, and in the Arab world there was a broad feeling that this was an indefensible strike against US power.
But now, at least where global popular opinion is concerned, George Bush has blown it. Every day the war continues, its goals uncertain and its civilian death toll ever more evident, Muslims around the world become more convinced this is, indeed, a war against Islam, whatever the President might say.
The anti-terror coalition, in as much as it ever looked much of a coalition, is growing wobbly with countries from Britain to Pakistan urging moderation and a greater clarity of military strategy. Editorials and opinion pieces in the European press ask ever more probing questions about the Americans' intentions, not only in Afghan-istan, but in Iraq, the West Bank and beyond.
At home, public opinion remains staunchly behind the President, who still enjoys a 90 per cent approval rating, but analysts and presidential advisers worry that the support might be thin and prone to a sudden reversal.
Already, confidence in the government's ability to prevent another terrorist attack has plummeted in a reaction to the clumsily handled anthrax investigation. Even the cheer-leading columnist Tom Friedman of The New York Times admitted this week that the battle for hearts and minds had left much to be desired. "It is no easy trick to lose a PR war to two mass murderers," he wrote, referring to both Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, "but we've been doing just that lately."
The Bush administration's problem is that the criticism is not just coming from the anti-war left, but from every quarter – military, diplomatic and political – and from every part of the world. Pakistan's leader, General Pervez Musharraf, summed up the feelings of many around the world when he told reporters: "It is being perceived ...as if this is a war against the poor, miserable, innocent people of Afghanistan."