In his televised address last night from Cincinnati, President George Bush was aiming at three different audiences. The first was the group of mostly Democratic Senators who threaten to oppose the resolution the President has sent to Congress. This defiance, if maintained, could deny Mr Bush a show of unanimous domestic support for broad powers to go to war against Iraq – support he wants in order to increase the pressure on the UN Security Council to pass a stern new resolution to permit the return of the weapons inspectors.
The second audience is the one beyond America's shores, whose doubts about the enterprise are reflected in the considerable difficulty the US and Britain are encountering in their efforts to forge such a UN resolution.
With his tone of unremitting belligerence, and his administration's scarcely masked contempt for the views of many of America's traditional friends and allies, Mr Bush is perceived across much of the planet not as the benign and righteous American he perceives himself to be, but as the Ugly American.
Nor, to put it mildly, did he do his cause much good with the new strategic security doctrine he sent to Capitol Hill last month, with its like-it-or-lump-it assertion that the US would tolerate no threat to its hegemony and reserved the right to take military action whenever and wherever it, and it alone, saw fit. Last night the President had a chance to soften these harsh perceptions.
Above all, however, this was a speech for the home front. Read the hawkish commentators and glance casually at the opinion polls and it would seem that the US population is as gung-ho for combat as Messrs Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld.
The truth, however, is less clear-cut. Read those polls more closely and you find that for all the Rumsfeldian swagger, a majority of Americans do not want to go it alone. They, like us, are deeply uneasy at one country launching an unprovoked attack on another. They, like us, worry about "the day after". Like the Democrat and Republican senators who balk at giving Mr Bush the wide powers he seeks, many do not believe the President has made the case that Saddam Hussein represents so imminent a threat to US security that he must be eliminated now, whatever it takes. They, like us, believe the UN inspectors should be given a last chance.
Finally, they are tired of hearing about nothing except Iraq. Believe it or not, exactly four weeks from today, Americans will be voting in mid-term elections in which control of both the House and Senate is on the line. To listen to Mr Bush in his daily diatribes on the stump, you would have no inkling that the stock market is at a five-year low, that the US economy is teetering on the edge of a double-dip recession, and that half of Americans worry that someone in their family will be out of a job within a year.
Last night was Mr Bush's chance to show doubters at home as well as abroad that he is not deliberately setting the UN inspection bar so high as to make it unacceptable, and thus render war inevitable. But he also has to dispel an impression – which in these last weeks has only grown – of a President playing politics with war, and using a faraway tyrant to split his Democratic opponents and obscure the issues that really matter to ordinary Americans. Such clever politics may pay dividends in the short term. But if the going gets rough over Iraq, that cynicism may come back to haunt him.
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