It is a glorious spring evening in Washington and the Mall is filled with joggers and walkers. Many friends consider the capital a sinkhole of amorality and cynicism. I have always loved the place. The planners, bureaucrats and politicos have never managed to eclipse the grace of the city. It is still a southern town – a few hours' drive south and you hit Richmond, the old Confederate capital – and in summer the suffocating heat suggests steamier latitudes.
I was 18 years old when I first came here, a boy on a tight budget who walked and walked in the twilight, from the Hill to the White House and then out to Woodley Park where people sat on their porches trying to catch a breeze. That was back in a vastly different America, in the twilight years of Jimmy Carter's Presidency. What baleful days for America then. Carter should never have been President but after Nixon (forget about Gerald Ford, everybody does) the American people wanted clean. They got a fumbler and a bumbler, a man who was never going to be big enough for the toughest job in the world. And they were tough times. Yellow ribbons were still tied around lampposts for the US hostages in Iran.
It was just a few years too after the fall of Saigon to the North Vietnamese and America was gripped by self-doubt. There was no wall yet to commemorate the American dead of that war. The veterans were silent, angry men you saw on the lawn outside Veterans' Administration offices. I remember the Army surplus stores packed with fresh combat jackets, shirts and trousers – useless now that the last troops had climbed aboard the choppers and abandoned Vietnam. I went bargain hunting amid the detritus of that catastrophic war.
It is hard to remember the impact of those years on America's vision of itself. The recent past was simply too recent. The nation had endured its first military defeat (and that is what Vietnam was, whatever the revisionists might say) and had seen Richard Nixon announce on television: "The President is not a crook." The Washington of those years was a Potemkin village. The fine buildings were still standing but behind it all was a haunted emptiness. America's self-esteem had been squandered in the rice paddies of South-east Asia and the corridors of the Watergate building.
More than 20 years later that sad Washington seems like a dream city. The United States has suffered the greatest terrorist assault in its history, but you won't find any sign of despair. Even the most die-hard anti-American would have to admire the zest and pluck here. It exists not in spite of 11 September but because of it. For someone used to the relentless navel-gazing of British public life the sense of national resolve in America is energising, if a little difficult to comprehend. How could so many people be so positive after such trauma?
It has also been very helpful for President George Bush. Yes there have been domestic problems to deal with (and the Democrats will ensure he has plenty more after the mid-term elections), but the nation has been united by the exigencies of fighting the "war on terror". Mr Bush has done a creditably good job at inspiring a national mood of recovery. After the shakiest of starts he has said all the right things. Whether one agreed that American policy in the war on terror would create a terror-free world was one thing; but there was no denying that Mr Bush was following a coherent line.
That was until the Middle East blew up in his face. Now there is a whiff of those Carter years once again. George Bush looks like a bumbler. Challenged with formulating a policy instead of responding to a national mood he has looked like a chump. Ironically it took a leading light of the bumbling Carter administration to point out the truth. The White House was hobbled by "strategic incoherence" said Zbigniew Brzezinski, one of the architects of the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt in the late 1970s.
There were signs of Mr Bush's weakness long before the 11 September crisis. The hesitancy of his initial response when the Chinese seized a US spy plane in the early months of the administration was an example. That incident was resolved because the wiser minds in the administration, like Colin Powell, persuaded Mr Bush to ignore the hard right which seeks to turn every encounter with the Chinese into the opening battle of a new Cold War. But the bogeymen of the right were not defeated. The likes of Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz bided their time. In the wake of 11 September they have become an increasingly powerful force in the White House. The sorry fact is that most of this bunch haven't had an original political idea since Nixon sat in the White House.
And they are dealing with a President who has no real ideas of his own. Certainly he has instincts but they are a poor substitute for strategic intelligence. The President's politics are so fundamentally immature that when confronted with a real world of hard choices he is floundering. So George Bush ends up caught in the crossfire between the wise – Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice – and the dangerous – Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle.
The latter are an arrogant, angry crew and God help us all if they triumph. It was their influence, and the siren voices of right-wing columnists and talk show hosts, which kept Mr Bush from intervening in the Middle East, repeating the mantra that Arafat was a terrorist just like bin Laden. They peddle the illusion that to secure America's destiny you simply need to shoot faster than the other guy. They resemble nothing so much as a lynch posse from the Old West who see their quarry on the horizon but fail to notice the miles of burning desert in between. Bush is the Walter Burns figure, the hesitant sheriff who says: "Gee boys I'm not so sure." But he follows them into the wilderness anyway.
For the moment Colin Powell has the President's ear but it would be foolish to imagine this will last. He has persuaded Mr Bush that America needs to intervene in the Middle East. But if he goes a step further and suggests putting massive American pressure on the Israelis (along with similar arm-twisting of Arafat) to sit down at peace talks, the right-wingers will raise hell. They are already doing that, aided by the pro-Israeli lobby and by large numbers of Congressmen from both parties.
They correctly sense that George Bush is weak. Lets not forget he was elected without a true popular mandate so that even if he were a strong strategist, he would be operating from a position of weakness. So he has swung from being tough on Sharon to watering down the administration's demand for Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank. Operating against this background General Powell's mission seems doomed to fail and when it does the belligerent posse in Washington will be in the ascendant. They will urge Mr Bush into war in Iraq with no concern for its wider implications. The war on terror will be defined entirely in terms of narrow self- interest with the world obliged to go to hell. The tragedy is that the wrong man is sitting in the White House. It shouldn't be George Bush or Al Gore either. Step forward, if only, President Colin Powell.
The writer is a BBC special correspondent.Reuse content