The wolves are starting to close in on a vulnerable Donald Rumsfeld

Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell are thriving because they are flexible and can sense the changed public mood in America
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The Independent Online

I was in the hotel lift the other day when a news item came on television about the latest US casualties in Iraq. A woman standing beside me started shaking her head. What are they dying for, she asked. I didn't have a chance to answer. We were at ground level and the door was opening and besides, any answer I might give would take a lot longer than I or the woman could spare.

The interesting thing is that she wasn't a New Yorker or a liberal West Coaster. Her accent was southern. Every other day the newspapers print the names of those killed in Iraq. They are all young men, many of them come from the southern states. It goes without saying that a large percentage come from poor backgrounds. The attacks on American troops are getting deadlier. In addition to the rising death toll there are now some 900 wounded. That is a lot of men returning to the US with hard things to say about the war. And the war is still going on. Forget this stuff about the end of major combat operations. Every night and day the coalition forces are engaged in warfare against those who would kill them.

The level of public disillusionment with the Iraq project is still relatively muted. The instinct is to support the forces in the field. There is no serious anti-war movement of the type led by Abbie Hoffman and others during the Vietnam era. But there is a lot of quiet discontent, a lot of the head shaking that I witnessed in the lift a few days back. People are worried and already George Bush is suffering politically. The opinion polls bring him bad news. The president's popularity is going south, largely because Americans feel they didn't get the whole truth about this war in advance. They were led to believe it was going to be a re-run of Afghanistan albeit on a larger scale.

The blame for this is being placed squarely on the civilian leadership in the Pentagon, which spoke publicly of American troops being welcomed enthusiastically on the streets of Baghdad. The current crisis is a warning to all who would make war through an ideological prism. In war things rarely work out the way you planned. There is abundant evidence of a changed political landscape. It is obvious from the tone of official statements, and also in the informal declarations of the president. Gone is the rhetoric of "bring 'em on", to be replaced by something like caution.

But we are talking here about a change that goes far beyond what is said in public or in private. The practical evidence is even more telling. This was the week in which the Europeans pulled off a diplomatic coup and drew Iran back from confrontation with the international community over nuclear weapons. The change was achieved by precisely the kind of diplomatic to-ing and fro-ing which the neo-cons loath. But it worked. It gained kudos for Europe and left Mr Bush with one fewer crisis to agonise over.

Gone is talk of attacking Iran or Syria. The battle plans have been shelved. But the most striking policy shift came in Asia when President Bush announced that he was willing to offer the North Koreans what amounts to a non-aggression pact. The White House won't call it this officially but a written assurance that America won't attack, in return for guarantees about Pyongyang's weapons programme, surely amounts to the same thing. It was a shrewd move by Mr Bush and it is already bearing far more fruit than the sabre-rattling of the past.

The administration's resident pragmatists (of which more later) Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice have assumed almost total control of strategic policy-making initiatives. The Secretary of State for Defence, Donald Rumsfeld, has looked like a man floundering, engulfed as he is by one embarrassment after another. He is widely disparaged in Washington for the post-war mess in Iraq and his enemies in the Pentagon - they are legion - and the White House have begun to leak. First there was the humiliation of reading in the bible of American liberals, The New York Times, that he was losing control over policy on Iraq to Condoleezza Rice. The most painful part of that story was knowing that the information had come from Ms Rice herself.

Now comes the news of Mr Rumsfeld's own memo predicting a "long hard slog" in Afghanistan and Iraq and questioning the effectiveness of the war on terror. Donald Rumsfeld is putting it out that the memo leaked accidentally. There are few in Washington who would be convinced by that. The leak has made him look foolish and vulnerable. He may only have been articulating what opinion writers and specialists have been saying for months, but such honesty sounded very strange coming from the man who promised emphatic victory. This week he was forced to indulge in a public debate with journalists about the precise meaning of the word "slog". According to Mr Rumsfeld it didn't mean anything negative or hazardous.

Mr Rumsfeld is not a neo-con. He does not believe in remaking the world in America's image. What he does believe in is smiting America's enemies before they even dream of smiting America. The scope for the dedicated smiter is receding as the Iraq death toll mounts. Donald Rumsfeld is blamed for sending too few troops to enforce the peace and he is struggling to persuade other nations to become involved.

So we have a sight that would have been hard to predict a few months back. A queue of wolves is forming along the banks of the Potomac and heading ever so tentatively in the direction of the Pentagon and Mr Rumsfeld's office.

One imagines this is watched with some relief by the supporters of Colin Powell. As for Condoleezza Rice, she has established herself as THE voice in the president's ear. Both have emerged from the war without any opprobrium attached. Ms Rice acknowledges that she failed to alert Mr Bush to some of the dubious intelligence used to justify the war. But her mea culpa was received with restraint by the press. Likewise Colin Powell has never been put on the rack for his performance before the UN. They are thriving because they are flexible thinkers and can sense the changed public mood in America.

All of this is far from the triumphant mood of just a few months back when George Bush strutted on the deck of an aircraft carrier and claimed victory. The pride of that moment has been replaced by something close to humility. The left has too often traded in cartoon stereotypes of the United States and failed to understand the fundamental dynamic of American political life: the US is a country of moderates, not liberal but basically tolerant. The terrorism of 11 September has not altered that. It created a back-draught of anger and set America on a course for war in Afghanistan and Iraq. But the basic common sense of the American mainstream never went away. That is good news for America and the world. It is what the events of the past week have been all about.

The writer is a BBC Special Correspondent