Suddenly, Iraq looks a rather frayed prototype

What we are seeing is not so much American resolve as Washington uncertainty
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The Independent Online

Could it be that we are seeing the influence of the neo-conservatives in Washington peaking, the ebb tide indeed of the whole policy of pre-emptive action, just as Tony Blair has reaffirmed his support of it?

The wish, of course, could be father to the thought. The "neo-cons", as they are called, are still very much around. Paul Wolfowitz, the US Deputy Defence Secretary, has just been on a tour of Iraq in an armed convoy covered by several attack helicopters. The think-tank warriors of the Heritage Foundation are sharpening their pens on hopes of a democratic revolution in Iran. And only this week George Bush was back to issuing dire warnings to the governments in Damascus and Tehran.

But on the ground the whole heady drive towards proactive intervention abroad looks to be stalling. In Liberia, and in the nuclear confrontations with North Korea and Iran, what we are seeing is not so much American resolve as Washington's uncertainty. Having declared its willingness to go it alone in Iraq, the US has looked for Asian allies against North Korea and a key role for the United Nations inspection force in Iran, while in Liberia it has simply evaded the direct question of sending in the Marines in favour of regional intervention.

The reason for hesitancy is not hard to find. It is post-war Iraq. What should have been a cakewalk - democratic reconstruction - has proved far more expensive in lives and money than anyone had predicted. In political terms the killing of Saddam's sons takes a lot of the heat off the President. But in terms of public perception and congressional concern, the whole enterprise is beginning to seem indigestible.

America is having to keep around 150,000 troops in the field, and even that is criticised as too few. The estimated cost of occupation has been nearly doubled to $3.9bn (£2.4bn) a month, enough to make a significant impact even on the US's monstrous budget deficit, with no obvious end in sight. Even for a country with the wealth of America, there are limits and Iraq seems to be pushing at them.

No one should doubt Mr Bush's determination to see this one through. He can't afford not to. And anybody who cares about Iraqis must want him to succeed. But it is as a prototype for the future that Iraq is looking frayed.

The doctrine of Donald Rumsfeld, the Defence Secretary, was that, using its technological superiority, America could fight speedy wars with relatively small numbers of lightly equipped troops. He was right for the invasion but not for the aftermath. Occupation needs troops on the ground and over time. And to cope with that allies are needed. A willingness to go anywhere, fight anyone and take on any responsibility is fine as rhetoric, and carries weight with the public when the enemy is clear and the task defined. But what about cases when the threat isn't immediate?

Hence the damage to the conservatives of the row which has erupted in Washington over the President's reference to Iraq's alleged uranium negotiations in Niger - the infamous "16 words" attributing the story to the British - in his State of the Union speech in January. Out there in middle America it may not play that big. But within Washington's beltway the passing of the buck from the CIA to the White House's security office is having a corrosive effect.

This should be Mr Blair's moment to act as the bridge between Washington and the international community. That, after all, was what he claimed would be the benefit of his transatlantic alliance. We now have an America inching towards internationalising the crises it is involved in and a UN and Europe ready to re-establish the kind of global co-operation that we saw in the immediate months after 11 September.

And yet Mr Blair seems strangely divorced from it all. Part of the problem is that he has used up a lot of his credit in Washington through the aborted effort for a second resolution in the UN and his recent problems with weapons of mass destruction. To many in Washington, Mr Blair has become not so much an ally as a liability, with his constant crises at home.

But the Prime Minister's other drawback is that he has become ever more fervent in his support for the neo-conservative agenda in Washington just as it is going into retreat. His growing condemnation of Iran, his expressions of "we're with you whatever you do" in his speech to Congress last week, his failed attempt to get his fellow left-of-centre prime ministers to sign up to an open-ended commitment to intervene in failed states and Geoff Hoon's statement that the UK cannot imagine undertaking a war unless it is as America's partner- all these would fit well with the Washington of last January but not of this July.

Mr Bush hasn't had a Damascene conversion to the United Nations, the International Court of Justice and the Kyoto protocol, and he's not going to do anything that looks as if it is rewarding the intransigence of his erstwhile opponents over Iraq. But on North Korea, Liberia, Iran and even perhaps Syria, the options are opening up in a way that would have seemed inconceivable only a few months ago. What America needs is fresh ideas and a willingness from others to take the initiative, not an ally clinging to its own former positions.