Well, boys, this is it. This time it's Baghdad. No more messing around. George W – no one calls the warrior president "Dubya" any more – is going for the big enchilada in Iraq. The "axis of evil" has been defined. This Bush is going to finish the job the previous Bush began, and knock out the hub of that axis by toppling Saddam Hussein. Serious armchair strategists have already ringed dates in October, when the desert heat will have abated sufficiently for a major ground operation to go ahead. The plans have been drawn up, all that remains is the presidential sign-off.
Or so we are led to believe by the febrile speculation that has gripped Washington since Mr Bush singled out Iraq, Iran and North Korea in his State of the Union address as the three greatest dangers to the planet. Tepid efforts to dampen expectations were soon abandoned. The President's speeches raised expectations further. Even Colin Powell, whom the Europeans wishfully imagine to be a lone kindred spirit in an administration otherwise comprehensible only through damning clichés, has unequivocally signed on. The chairman of the joint chiefs of staff in 1991, who initially opposed going to war over Kuwait, has metamorphosed into a Secretary of State who insists on a change of regime in Baghdad. For good measure, he warns that America will go it alone if it has to.
The new element is not so much detailed military planning (Pentagon shelves must groan under contingency plans for Iraq), nor even the abstruse debates over the timing of a new crisis engineered over the United Nations weapons inspectors and the correct balance between overt and covert action. What has changed is an underlying assumption. The question is no longer whether to move to oust Saddam Hussein. It is when and how.
The new reality strikes raw nerves abroad. Britain wanders as usual between two separate worlds – the unease it shares with its European partners at American high-handedness, and its desire to remain the chosen courtier who is vouchsafed at least some of the emperor's confidences. Thus Jack Straw – after an ill-received remark during his visit to the US this month, to the effect that President Bush's speech was mere rhetoric, playing to the mid-term election gallery this autumn – has since been restrained on the big subject.
Unburdened by such concerns, the Continent is, as usual, less inhibited. Hubert Vedrine, Joschka Fischer and Chris Patten fulminate against a "simplistic" America, careless of its allies, a half-witted bull rampaging amid the Meissen porcelain of Middle East and South Asian diplomacy. But our Foreign Secretary and his Prime Minister keep their counsel. "If there is a plan," says Mr Blair, "I haven't seen it." Maybe so. But rhetoric on occasion does change reality. And the axis of evil is for real.
To understand this, it is worth tracing the way in which the Bush team is thinking about how terrorism has evolved: in other words, not whether, when or how the US should now be going after Iraq, but why. In the immediate aftermath of 11 September Washington had two overriding goals: to wind up al-Qa'ida and to destroy the state that harboured it. The campaign in Afghanistan has produced some success on the first count and near-complete success on the second.
Almost from the outset Bush officials talked about a phase two, targeted at Somalia and the Philippines. In the case of the Philippines, this has already come to pass. But the three members of the now famous axis were doing nothing untoward. Indeed, Iran quickly expressed its sympathy with the victims of the terrible day, and seemed to be edging towards some sort of accommodation with the US.
At that point two things happened. In America there was the anthrax scare, while in Afghanistan US special forces discovered documents in al-Qa'ida hideouts confirming that the organisation was seeking nuclear and biological weapons. The events of 11 September had been dreadful enough. But what if 19 suicide attackers had gone about their business armed with canisters of anthrax or smallpox, or with a nuclear device?
Thus emerged the link between terrorism, states that might foment terrorism, and weapons of mass destruction. The administration fed the data into its collective mental computer, and the search yielded three names that fitted the facts: Iran, Iraq and North Korea.
The last is something of a red herring. North Korea is neither a haven nor a sponsor of terrorism. Its membership of the club rests on its nuclear and germ warfare programmes and the $1bn-worth of missile technology it sells every year to the likes of Iran and Iraq, virtually its only source of hard currency.
Iran is more problematic. A reformist faction, widely supported among young people, would like to turn over a new leaf in relations with the West, and its government shared US abhorrence of the Taliban, albeit for different reasons. But in the end, Iran's pursuit of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons and sponsorship of terrorist groups against Israel destroyed any benefit of the doubt that it might have been given.
In the case of Iraq, of course, doubt never existed. Saddam may have been far too sensible to leave a fingerprint on the 11 September outrages. And the anthrax attacks now appear to be of domestic origin. But he met every one of the new criteria. For a decade he'd thumbed his nose at Washington, and in 1993 had even tried to assassinate Bush senior. Iraq was the dark sun, from which all evil radiated. And for the Bush family, there was a personal score to be settled.
But matters aren't as simple as that. There is method in the Bush madness – the calculation that the more credible the threats, the more likely they are to achieve results, by finally persuading those Iraqis in a position to act that the game is up.
That reasoning may well be flawed. After all, four decades of pressure have failed to produce a change of regime in Cuba. Saddam's ruthlessness and talent for survival are unmatched. But – and probably deliberately – Mr Bush has locked himself into a trap of high expectations. Having cried wolf so loudly this time, he will scarcely be able to return to Capitol Hill next year with nothing to show for it. All the more reason, therefore, to move rapidly against this member of the axis.
And if the phrase brings back memories of Ronald Reagan, likewise derided in his time by the Europeans as a simpleton, that is exactly what is intended. The president this Bush most resembles is not his father, but Mr Reagan and his gut convictions, first and foremost that the Soviet Union was the "evil empire".
In 1983 as now, the wise and ancient chancelleries of Europe scoffed at the ignorance of the man – just as they complained at the naivety of America's Moscow Olympic boycott, and were mystified by its early 1980s crusade against the natural gas pipeline between the Soviet Union and Europe. But the evil empire rhetoric worked. It encouraged dissidents and drew Moscow into a military race it could not afford.
Mr Reagan, of course, had the crucial insight (again disputed by many who thought they knew better) that the Soviet Union was a rotten apple. As he declared in the most prescient of his great anti-communist speeches, delivered to the British Parliament in June 1982, it was gripped by a profound revolutionary crisis, prisoner of a doctrine that ran against human history.
George Bush can have no such certainty in America's long and perhaps unwinnable struggle against terrorism. But however much it may be derided, the axis of evil, like the evil empire before it, is certain to become a defining phrase of our age.Reuse content