Rupert Cornwell: This time, Bush could not suspend disbelief

Barring a miracle in Iraq, Bush is likely to limp along with Nixonian approval ratings

As Watergate buffs will have noticed, E Howard Hunt died this week. Hunt, of course, was the ex-spook who headed the infamous White House "plumbers unit" responsible for the 1972 break-in that led to the downfall of Richard Nixon. But he was also a fantasist, addicted to madcap schemes with only the most tenuous connection to reality. A man, in short, perfectly suited to the surreal flavour of the moment here in Washington, where reality has been elbowed off the stage entirely.

Last Tuesday, President Bush delivered the State of the Union address, the purest moment of theatre in America's political calendar. Normally, it is an occasion that, at least for the hour or so it lasts, carries off the theatrical trick of suspension of disbelief. As you listen to a chief executive reeling off a list of worthy domestic initiatives, and proclaiming his noble vision for US foreign policy, for a fleeting moment you feel that all's well with the world.

As he leaves the House chamber, signing autographs and joking with political friends and foes alike, it briefly seems that the old line about the parties setting aside their differences to "do the people's business" actually means something. But not this time; Iraq has seen to that. The disconnect between what the White House proclaims to be happening, and what is really the case, has surely not been as great since the days of Vietnam. This time Bush could not suspend disbelief.

Iraq, he tells us, is the central front in the great conflict against extremism, a third world war to rival the global conflicts of the 20th century. Yet this is a war without public sacrifice - except, of course, for the families who have lost loved ones on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. "We have a diplomatic strategy that is rallying the world to join the fight against extremism," he declared. Oh yes? When a BBC survey this month taken in 25 countries shows that an overwhelming majority of international opinion disapproves of US policy in the "war on terror", and believes that America's involvement in the Middle East causes more conflicts than it solves? Once again we are faced by America's inability, never greater than under the current management, to see itself as the rest of the world sees it. But now there is an additional difference. This particular administration cannot see - or will not see - how its own country sees it.

Take Dick Cheney, to be seen on Tuesday evening in his other constitutional role as President of the Senate, wearing his usual inscrutable scowl as Bush delivered his address. The Vice President who so loves those "secure undisclosed locations" has now walled himself up in the bunker of his own mind, as evidenced by this remarkable exchange with Chris Wallace, an interviewer from the conservative Fox News to whom Cheney prefers to vouch his thoughts.

He dismisses the notion that the latest, and much criticised "surge" in US troop strength in Iraq ran against the will of the people, as expressed by the November midterm elections that gave Democrats control of Congress for the first time in 12 years. No President, he says, "can afford to make decisions of this magnitude according to the polls. The polls change". But, Wallace politely notes, "This was an election, sir." To which Cheney simply repeats, "Polls change day by day, week by week." Contempt for foreigners is par for the course from the Bush White House. But the Vice-President's disdain for what Americans feel was stunning.

But Cheney could soon be off the hook. The Middle East burns, but America's collective attention is starting to shift from the realities of the present to political fantasies of tomorrow, ie the 2008 presidential election. That, of course, is the American way, so often the country's strength: far better to focus on a future which can only be brighter, than to navel-gaze over failure or defeat - a failure or defeat that the President in any case tells us is unthinkable.

For the political classes, the burning question is less when the troops should come home from Iraq than whether Barack is the man to beat Hillary; whether his unwavering support for the Iraq war is making John McCain unelectable; whether Rudy Giuliani really has the stomach for a presidential run. Great armies of strategists, consultants and fundraisers are girding for what undoubtedly will be a fascinating struggle.

But for a non-American, there is something almost surreal about the shift. As the novelty countdown clocks tell us, "liberation" from George W Bush - 20 January 2009 - is still 725 days off. Yes, Bush may be a very lame duck indeed, but turmoil in Iraq and the Middle East will not go on hold until the next Inauguration Day. Indeed, on current trends, the US/Israeli showdown with Iran over its nuclear programme won't even wait until next January's New Hampshire primary. The old is dead, but the new cannot be born. That was how the great Italian political thinker Antonio Gramsci defined a crisis - and it applies perfectly to the US right now.

The newly elected Congress will doubtless pass resolutions opposing the force increase in Iraq, and may even demand a new vote reauthorising the mission in Iraq. But these will make no difference. Barring a miraculous turnaround in that unhappy country, Bush is likely to limp along with Nixonian approval ratings and ever-diminishing political influence until his appointed term ends.

This is a testing moment for the American system. It is hard to think of a parallel; the closest might be France, which had no alternative but to give the little loved Jacques Chirac a second term after the left fatally splintered in the first round of its presidential election in 2002.

So who knows what will happen? Worth noting is what Gramsci said about this period between the death of the old and the birth of the new: how "in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear". One of them already has - the disconnect between Bush and reality. "The State of our Union is strong," he proclaimed. In fact the state of the union looks not so much ropey as downright weird. And Howard Hunt, had some pretty weird ideas of his own, would have relished the possibilities.