With a last cheery wave, Tony Blair and George Bush turned their backs on the Rose Garden and the watching world and stepped back into the privacy of the Oval Office.
The French doors closed behind the last of their trailing entourage and the two leaders sat down to a lunch of Texan food: quail and corn grits. As he chatted to the President's wife, however, Mr Blair is bound to have wondered whether this was his last meal in the Bush White House. Just three hours after their joint press conference the TV pictures of sunlit-dappled statesmen amid the tulips were replaced by the terrified face of Keith Maupin, a 20-year-old soldier from Ohio, flanked by AK47-toting insurgents.
The taking of the first US hostage was a sharp reminder that the political fate of both men is now also dependent on events in Iraq.
Last week's swirl of diplomatic activity was intended to portray a President in control after traumatic weeks of chaos and bloodshed. First Ariel Sharon, then Tony Blair rallied to his side as Mr Bush pledged he would not be deflected from his course.
The truth, however, is that the events of the past month have greatly reduced his power to dictate the future of either Iraq or the wider Middle East. Mr Bush's decision to allow the UN a "central role" has been forced on him, not by Mr Blair, but by the failure of the hawks in the Pentagon to deliver a "Pax Americana".
Significantly, Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defense Secretary, was not present when Mr Blair sat down for his two-hour session with Mr Bush before Friday's press conference. Instead Colin Powell, the dovish Secretary of State, whose doubts about the wisdom of the war continue to surface, was selected to participate in the discussions.
Mr Powell is quoted as having warned the President two months before the invasion of Iraq of the likely problems ahead.
"You're sure?" Mr Powell is said to have asked Mr Bush when he told him of the decision to invade in January 2003. "You break it, you own it," he said, underlining the extent to which Mr Bush was about to make himself responsible for another country's destiny.
Mr Powell's presence in the Oval Office on Friday was one more sign of how far the President has been forced to accept the folly of his failure to listen to that advice.
Where once Iraq's political future was in the hands of Mr Bush's neo-conservative friends such as Mr Rumsfeld, it has now been passed to a 70-year-old Algerian career diplomat, Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN special representative in Baghdad. Mr Brahimi's previous postings, from Haiti to Afghanistan, may stand him in good stead in the coming weeks as he works to construct an Iraqi government that could command popular support.
But, as Patrick Cockburn reports (opposite), the omens for success in his enterprise are not good, trapped as he is within the military cordon surrounding Baghdad's "Green Zone". His efforts will have been discussed in detail in the Oval Office on Friday. As well as Mr Powell, the President invited Condoleezza Rice, the National Security Adviser, to the crisis talks. For his part, Mr Blair was accompanied by Nigel Sheinwald, his chief foreign policy adviser, and Jonathan Powell, his chief of staff.
Mr Blair is likely to have passed on the analysis of Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary-General, with whom he had dined the previous night in New York. Mr Annan, a close friend of Mr Brahimi, gave Mr Blair an unvarnished assessment of the Algerian diplomat's chances of success, according to aides.
The stakes could hardly be higher. Mr Brahimi's report on whether the 30 June deadline for a handover is still possible will be a defining moment for Mr Bush's nascent presidential campaign. Polls already place the President six to 10 points behind his Democrat challenger, Senator John Kerry, and the key approval rating on his handling of the war has slipped from 51 per cent to 44 per cent in recent weeks.
The extension of US soldiers' tours, many of whom have been in Iraq for a year, was deeply unpopular: the mood in small-town America soured as the homecoming bunting was taken down. The situation in Iraq and the drip of damaging revelations about what the administration knew before 11 September is undermining Mr Bush's key election weapon, his leadership of the war on terror.
Mr Bush would also like to have campaigned over his record on 11 September, but it is increasingly apparent he cannot do that. Thrown on to the defensive several weeks ago by allegations from his former counter-terrorism chief, Richard Clarke, that he and his senior officials failed to consider the threat from al-Qa'ida, the issue of what Mr Bush may or may not have been told about Osama bin Laden's plans refuses to go away.
This week the independent commission investigating the circumstances of 11 September heard from senior intelligence officials about the lack of communication between the CIA and the FBI, and how certain clues were missed.
But fueled by claims from a number of whistleblowers, as well as testimony from a series of senior officials, a public perception is developing that there were sufficient clues available to have made clear that al-Qa'ida was planning to attack the US using planes. That perception has been added to by the White House's decision to declassify an edited version of the presidential daily briefing, or PDB, to Mr Bush on 6 August, entitled "Bin Laden determined to strike US".
Ms Rice had previously claimed that the information was "historical". Despite this, Mr Bush refuses to apologize to any of the 9/11 victims - a move that his advisers must have told him would be seized on as an admission of guilt or responsibility.
"I'm sick when I think about the death that took place on that day," Mr Bush said. "[But] the person who is responsible for the attacks was Osama bin Laden."
Mr Bush told a press conference this week: "I don't plan on losing my job. I plan on telling the American people that I've got a plan to win on terror. And I believe they'll stay with me. They understand the stakes."
Little wonder, perhaps, that Mr Bush has little political capital to spare on Israel. Brute electoral calculation also lay behind his endorsement of Mr Sharon's unilateral usurping of the Middle East "roadmap". Mr Bush is unable, or unwilling, to deliver the sort of pressure on Israel needed to force through the "roadmap" six months before his re-election campaign.
As Mr Blair's plane touched down shortly before 7am yesterday, the Prime Minister returned to his own domestic critics. However Mr Blair dresses it up, the President's acceptance of Israel's position that Palestinian refugees have no right of return is poor reward for the Prime Minister's support, and he faces fierce criticism from his own MPs when he addresses them at a meeting tomorrow evening.
Some of them will, no doubt, remind him that he urged their support for the war a year ago in large part by promising movement on the Middle East. "Partners are not servants," he told the Commons during the crucial debate on 18 March. In return for Britain's support in Iraq, he said: "We ask two things ... That the US choose the UN path and you should recognize the overriding importance of re-starting the Middle East peace process."
Even Mr Blair's allies on the Labour backbenches do not pretend that he has made good that deal this weekend. Clive Soley, the former chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party, warned Mr Blair that he would face a rough ride from MPs at tomorrow's meeting.
Mr Blair pre-empted his critics' attack yesterday with a series of interviews. "On the one side are the fanatics, the extremists and the terrorists," the Prime Minister told BBC Radio 4's Today program."On the other side, the Iraqi people - the vast majority, those decent people you meet on the Iraqi Governing Council - the UN, the coalition and any country that wants to see Iraq become stable.
"Now - in those circumstances - there is only one side to be on, and we have got to do what it takes to see it through and get it done."
In the same interview, however, Mr Blair said that it was "his job" to work with whoever is the American President. After the US elections in November, he may find that the "side to be on" has dramatically changed.
© 2004 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd