President Bush may have put an invasion of Iraq on hold until it can best help his 2004 re-election campaign. The administration would prefer to see change in Iraq by subtler means than 300,000 troops and mass bombing. He does not want to relive his father's experience of winning a war a year too early and finding that come the election the victory was forgotten or, worse, the post-war peace was turning sour. Most observers focus on the perceived role of the Pentagon hawks versus State Department doves in the battle for influence over Bush. But his political advisers in the White House - especially Karl Rove - are far more influential. It was Rove who, in June, gave a presentation explaining that the war should be central to the Republicans' successful campaign to win control of both the House of Representatives and the Senate.
But it was also Rove who saw that voters were as frightened by the go-it-alone war talk as they were enthusiastic for a tough line on terrorism. It was this reading of voter concern that provided the boost for talks at the UN and produced much milder language from Bush. In Britain, we were told that it was Blair's September meeting with Bush and Cheney that changed things, however the need to win an election was far more influential in persuading Bush to be patient.
In Washington there are still some close to the Pentagon who see an invasion of Iraq coming soon. But a view shared by political strategists for the Democrats, veteran reporters and long-time Republican insiders was that all the signs are that the war is now on the back burner. Had the White House really wanted to, it would have used the victory in the midterm elections to force through a faster timeline on Iraq at the UN and would have increased the pay-offs needed to ensure its 15-0 approval by the security council. As it was, they agreed a process that can easily be spun out for a year.
Then, almost as soon as the resolution passed, Iraq again fired on US and British planes. What happened? Nothing. There was no speeches declaring that Iraq had once again flouted the will of the international community and that we now had to go to war. Rather, we were reminded that our planes enforcing the no-fly zones were not covered by these UN resolutions, something that had strangely been left out of briefings these last 10 years.
If this was happening under Clinton, he would be under a howling attack from the right for wimpishness, something the Bush administration need not fear. Even if some in the government go to the media wanting a harder line, there is little they can do if the president fears an early war will damage his election chances. Delaying the invasion does not mean that Bush will not keep up the pressure and how Saddam reacts may yet trigger US action. A lot of the forces are in place but a major British force would need to be mobilised now for action early next year.
The deadlines of an Iraqi declaration of its weapons and the first UN report timed for February can all be spun on. Indeed that date in February is close to the onset of the hot weather when, we are told, it is too hot to fight. Conventional wisdom is that it is impossible to fight in the heat wearing a full chemical and biological protection suit.
Officials believe it unlikely that Saddam will be caught red-handed with his hands in a cauldron of toxins surrounded by missiles. The inspectors will have to make a judgment on a host of fragmentary and circumstantial evidence and it is likely that Britain and the US will have a different view from the rest.
With a dispute over evidence and a call for more inspections there may be an effort from Washington to apply more military pressure on Iraq through inspections backed by force, or even by using troops to capture suspected weapons sites. These troops would then be used to secure an airbase or two inside Iraq so that we end up with a gradual occupation backed up by the threat of air strikes if Saddam tries to move his forces.
Such an effort may be fitted into the next UN resolution. What will also be interesting to watch is whether the real multilateralists at the UN are better prepared to get concessions from the US on disarmament in exchange for disarming Iraq. Now that disarmament is back on the agenda we must ensure that it applies to not just to Bush's bad guys but to a global effort to manage and eliminate weapons of mass destruction.
As we watch the saga of the inspectors unfold, remember Ronald Reagan's motto: always have a bad guy and if you get in trouble change the subject. Earlier this year Bush was in trouble for not catching the prime suspect in the war on terrorism and changed the subject and the bad guy from Bin Laden to Saddam. Any further massive attack from al-Qaida may trigger the mass distraction of an invasion of Iraq.