This can quickly go wrong for Mr Bush
By Fergal Keane
The international consensus on Iraq is fragile and could shatter if civilian casualties were large. Neither can Mr Bush be certain his domestic support would hold up if the war turned into a bloodbath. He might have finally to answer the difficult question: what has this to do with fighting Qaeda?
Anybody who has ever made a political judgement based on appearances should have learnt a lesson this week. A man written off by the intelligentsia as a bumbling jackass when he came to office, and denigrated ever since, achieved a political feat that has eluded so many American presidents. George Bush is a man in charge of his own house, and the people who once wrote him off as the village idiot of the Beltway have been shocked into silence.
Just a week ago most observers would have refused to believe that the UN Security Council might offer unanimous backing to a resolution that puts Saddam under pressure to disarm or face military action. Even Syria, the voice of the Arab world on the council, saw fit to support the move. There is a commitment to consult the council if the weapons inspectors find Iraq in “further material breach”, but President Bush has won his most important international battle. The key words in this resolution are “serious consequences”. Everybody knows what that means, and it will be hard for any of the permanent members to dissemble if the Iraqi leadership fails to provide anything less than 100 per cent co-operation with Mr Blix.
Seven weeks ago President Bush was said to have little inclination for taking his case against Saddam to the UN. The Rumsfeld-Cheney-Wolfowitz axis appeared to be all-powerful – to hell with the foreigners and their hand-wringing, let’s just attack Iraq. But urged on by Tony Blair, President Bush did go to New York and make his case; he also waited – and waited – while Colin Powell negotiated and re-negotiated a draft resolution. Bush certainly listens to the Rumsfeld brigade, and it is they in the end who will likely have the final word on whether Saddam is attacked or not. But Bush is no ventriloquist’s dummy for the right. As an American colleague put it to me yesterday: “It’s very clear that they work for him, not the other way around.”
With Capitol Hill in the hands of the Republicans and a UN resolution that gives America almost all of what it wanted in relation to Iraq, Mr Bush has achieved a greater sway over domestic and international affairs than even that enjoyed by Ronald Reagan. Remember that the first Reagan administration still had to take into account the power of the Soviet Union. Mr Bush, by contrast, is master of a universe whose complexities and differences he has so often delighted in ignoring.
It would be a serious mistake, though, to read the mid-term election results as a harbinger of a swing to the right. America remains a country of generally moderate voters, many still mistrustful of the Republican agenda when it comes to issues such as health and education, and many who resent the culture of crony capitalism that infects the upper echelons of the GOP. The American electorate is middle-of-the road – but it is also traumatised and fearful.
Where some European leaders and most liberal-minded columnists saw in Bush a dangerous unilateralist, a growing body of Americans saw a leader who put their safety above all other considerations. So they’re willing to ignore issues that would normally have given the Democrats a strong position from which to attack. It is surely a measure of these extraordinary times that Enron and the controversial business dealings of Vice President Dick Cheney were never an issue for voters and that blame for the floundering economy was not laid at the President’s door.
The election was about fear and reassurance. As the voice of wise, liberal opinion, Mario Cuomo, put it: the election was about 11 September and the Democrats lost because they had nothing to say. Wrapped in the mantle of patriotism Bush was unassailable, all the more remarkable because he never gave the impression of exploiting tragedy for political gain.
There is a message from this week’s results that we would all be foolish to ignore. The American people trust Bush and they will follow him to war in Iraq if he makes the judgement that such a course of action is needed. For all the negotiating at the UN, I suspect the decision as to the necessity of such action was made a long time ago and that the White House is depending on Saddam’s gift for miscalculation to provide the catalyst for an invasion.
The opinion polls suggest that a substantial number of people have doubts about attacking Iraq, but that was the case too before the last Gulf War, in fact before any significant American military action in the last 20 years. Once war gets under way the polls tend to shoot up and stay that way – as long as the war is short and there aren’t too many American boys coming home in body bags. The massive loss of life in the attacks on America may have changed public willingness to accept military casualties, but this remains to be tested.
For Tony Blair, it has been a fortunate week. Had the last frantic round of negotiations at the UN not delivered a compromise everybody could live with, Mr Blair could have been forced to back an American military attack against the protests of many in his party and a large part of public opinion. There may yet be a moment of crisis within the party if Saddam frustrates the inspectors and triggers a conflict, but the UN resolution will make it harder for Mr Blair’s opponents to drum up a broad protest against military action. So the devil is not in the detail of the resolution. Forget the verbal circumlocution of the last week, the Americans have got what they wanted from the outset. The nations who have signed the resolution know that it paves the way for war if Saddam refuses to disarm. Some of them may believe a war is inevitable, others will hope that Iraq will endure the humiliation of disarmament and get everybody off the hook.
The problems arise from the unpredictable character of the Iraqi regime and the nature of war itself. Saddam Hussein could look at this resolution, ponder the length of time it took to get agreement and decide that he will risk frustrating the inspections. The council might have backed the resolution, but would all its members really support an invasion of Iraq?
The international consensus on Iraq is fragile and could shatter if civilian casualties were large. Neither can Mr Bush be certain his domestic support would hold up if the war turned into a bloodbath. He might have finally to answer the difficult question: what has this to do with fighting Al Qaeda? The White House believes that the war would be won swiftly and with minimum loss of life. If that calculation is wrong, then the triumph of the mid-term elections and the UN diplomacy could be quickly replaced by bitterness and recrimination.
Of course, now that President Bush has won such overwhelming backing at home and abroad, the moment of crisis may never come. In seven days we will get the first hint of how Iraq plans to deal with this ultimatum. Saddam may break the habit of a lifetime and admit defeat, complying “promptly and unconditionally”, as President Bush has demanded. I wouldn’t bet on it. —The Independent
The writer is a BBC Special Correspondent