Rupert Cornwell: Out Of America

As a leaked memo from 2003 shows, the US could have got rid of Saddam without spending billions on a war
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The Independent Online

These days, George Bush is so unpopular that even the Republican candidates seeking to succeed him dare not speak his name. But the great lesson imparted by current US politics is that, however enfeebled, a President with a veto is more than a constitutional match for his foes.

For proof, look at the Iraq war. Public disenchantment with that disastrous venture was the reason the Democrats recaptured Congress last November. Ten months on, Mr Bush's approval ratings have sunk even lower. But what have Democrats managed to achieve with all their huffing and puffing? Zero. They haven't been able to put the slightest brake on the US war machine.

This impotence has many reasons. The mess that Mr Bush has created is such that there are no simple answers any more. Democrats dread opening themselves up to charges that they are letting down the troops. Most important, however, they don't have the votes – not the 60 needed in the Senate to break a filibuster, still less the two-thirds majority of 67 to override a presidential veto. The long-term results of the "surge" in Iraq are debatable. At home, however, it's worked wonders as a short-term political weapon by persuading enough Republicans to stick with their President – at least until a bemedalled General David Petraeus returns to Capitol Hill in March to deliver his next progress report.

So the waste continues. "A billion here and a billion there and pretty soon you're talking real money," the Texas Democrat Lloyd Bentsen once said, apropos the Reagan deficits of the Eighties. In the case of Mr Bush and Iraq, read not billions, but hundreds of billions.

Last week, Bob Gates, the Defence Secretary, asked Congress for an extra $42bn (£21bn) to fund the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, making a total request of $190bn for 2008. And there's not a scrap of doubt the Pentagon will get its money, even though the bill for the Iraq war alone runs at over $12bn a month. Already it has cost more than the first Gulf War and the Korean War. Next year, it will overtake Vietnam as the most expensive conflict in US history, with the exception of the Second World War.

In the meantime, Mr Bush threatens to use his veto to kill a measure passed with large majorities in the House and Senate. It would spend $35bn – or less than three months' worth of the Iraq War – on expanding government-funded health care to three million uninsured American children, for the next five years. But for the White House, this is reckless spending – and a step towards the ultimate evil of "socialised medicine". Socialised war, on the other hand, is perfectly all right. Such are the bizarre priorities of the Bush administration.

The saddest thing is that it seems we could have got rid of Saddam Hussein without a war, and for the trifling cost of just one old-fashioned Bentsen billion.

This emerges from a transcript of a meeting between Mr Bush and Jose Maria Aznar, then the Spanish Prime Minister, at his Texas ranch in February 2003, and leaked to the Spanish daily El Pais. The account of the talks, less than a month before the US-led invasion, is not as damning as the infamous Downing Street memo, in which the head of British intelligence claims as early as July 2002 that the White House was "fixing the intelligence" around a decision already taken to go to war. But it is damning nonetheless. Mr Bush is said to have told his Spanish ally that whatever happened, he expected "to be in Baghdad at the end of March". So much for the efforts being made at the time for a second UN resolution specifically authorising war.

Most striking is Mr Bush's assertion that Saddam had told the Egyptians he was ready to consider leaving the country and going into exile if he could take $1bn "and information on weapons of mass destruction" with him. That last condition is rather odd, given that his regime, it later emerged, had neither WMDs nor active programmes to produce them. "Yes, it's possible," Mr Bush replied, when Mr Aznar pressed him on whether Saddam might really go.

It will be a long time, if ever, before we know how serious these efforts were – and Saddam must have suspected that, as the US President told the Spanish Prime Minister, he could expect "no guarantee" if he did leave. "It's also possible he could be assassinated," Mr Bush noted dryly to his guest.

Assuming it is genuine, the document also throws light on Mr Bush's worldview. Europeans did not understand the Saddam problem "maybe because he's dark-skinned, far away and Muslim". As for the then French President, Jacques Chirac, the leading European opponent of the war: "He sees himself as Mr Arab." Mr Bush gives not a damn about unpopularity. "The more the Europeans attack me, the stronger I am in the United States," he told Mr Aznar.

Back then he was right, as French fries were replaced by "freedom fries" in the restaurants of Capitol Hill. But while times have changed over the past four years, Mr Bush hasn't. He is still convinced of the correctness of his cause and, judging by the failure of the Democratic majority in Congress, still has the power to stare them down. In 2003, Mr Aznar was uneasy about the President's unshakeable optimism. "I'm optimistic because I believe I'm right," Mr Bush answered. "I'm at peace with myself." And, every opinion poll notwithstanding, he seems at peace with himself now.