No weapons of mass destruction have yet been found and Saddam Hussein's putative links to al-Qaeda remain unverified. Moreover, there's reason to believe that intelligence agencies in Britain and the United States were pressured by both administrations into providing such evidence.
Tony Blair is in trouble, yet George W. Bush is still riding high. On the face of it, this seems curious. Both men preside over legislative majorities, but Blair's is stronger than Bush's. Both are effective campaigners although Blair is more articulate. And Blair has done a better job than Bush delivering a good economy, making government more efficient, and improving school performance.
Part of the answer might be found by comparing their news conferences, both held last Wednesday. Blair opened with charts and graphs demonstrating his Government's achievements. Then the press hit him with a barrage of questions about whether he's quitting because of the flare-up over intelligence.
Bush's news conference, his first since before the Iraq war, was strikingly different. He began by saying that Iraq 'has been liberated from tyranny and is on the path to self-government and peace', and reassuring everyone that although 'the violent remnants of Saddam Hussein's regime' are still trying to frighten the Iraqi people and 'undermine the resolve of our coalition', they will fail. Then he reminded the press that Saddam Hussein's sons didn't escape the raids 'and neither will other members of that despicable regime'.
The first question to Bush was how soon Saddam Hussein will be caught. Bush said he didn't know, but 'we're on the hunt'. A question about homeland security prompted him to say the United States has information that a terrorist organization might try again to hijack airliners, perhaps an international flight, adding that 'I'm confident we will thwart the attempts'. Only two questions concerned the accuracy of the intelligence on which the Iraq war was based. Bush responded by saying he had no doubt that Saddam Hussein was a threat to the United States, he was confident weapons would be found, and was sure that history would prove the decision to attack Iraq was right.
Since his election in 1997, Tony Blair has based much of his appeal on claims of integrity and sincerity, coupled with promises to improve domestic services. Now two-thirds of the British public doesn't trust him, and he's compelled to show how well he's done on domestic issues apart from the attention he's given to foreign affairs. But in an America that is still reeling from the terrorist attack of 11 September, Bush's appeal has been based largely on his determination to fight back. Americans haven't cared very much about the details of Bush's strategy, as long as it's sufficiently bold. In fact, a large portion of the American public continues to believe that Saddam Hussein was somehow involved in the 9/11 attack. As long as the administration seems to be making 'progress' by tracking down or killing his key assistants, including his sons, and fighting the remnants of his forces, most Americans are satisfied.
The American public would have preferred that we go into Iraq with more of our allies, of course. And there's lingering concern that neither Saddam Hussein nor Osama bin Laden has yet been captured or killed. But Bush needs only to demonstrate resolve against the forces of evil - or, as he did last Wednesday, merely to mention that terrorists might be planning another attack similar to 9/11 - and questions about the quality of the intelligence underlying his decision to go into Iraq don't seem to register on the public's mind. At every opportunity, Bush emphasizes that we've freed the Iraqi people from a terrible dictator and are making the world safer from terror ism. Apparently that's enough.
Blair faces vocal critics, including a few notables from his own party. But Bush's critics are muted. Republicans in Congress are highly disciplined in their support of the President. They are in charge of both houses and the presidency for the first time in more than half a century and are determined to keep it that way. They control all the committees that, at another time in history, would have held hearings to discover 'what the President knew and when did he know it'. But with an election 16 months away, they're doing everything they can to resist such inquiries.
Democrats, meanwhile, are in disarray, lacking both a critical message about the war and a messenger to deliver it. At least nine Democrats are running for the Democratic nomination for President, each seeking to distinguish himself or herself from the pack. This hardly makes for coherent criticism.
Only one Democratic hopeful - Howard Dean, former governor of Vermont - has sought to claim the anti-war mantle. But he accuses Bush of mishandling the terrorist threat rather than of being too bellicose.
More importantly, Democrats are seen by the American public as weak on national defense. This is why the Bush White House wants to focus the election of November 2004 on the subject, and why Democrats are so reluctant to raise alarms about how Bush is waging his war. It's also why most Senate Democrats voted last October to give Bush authority to wage it. Democrats would rather change the subject to the economy, which continues to shed jobs at an alarming rate.
Blair faces a notoriously combative British press, much of it conservative but now also including the BBC. But the American media have been far kinder to Bush, for three reasons. First, Bush's White House press operation has been one of the most disciplined and effective in American history - rewarding friendly reporters with access and scoops, freezing out unfriendly ones. Second, print editors and broadcast producers are exquisitely sensitive to American public opinion, partly because the companies that pay them to advertise their products and services are so sensitive.
That means they're reluctant to probe too deeply or criticize too harshly a war effort that appeals to Americans' sense of patriotism and desire to 'support our troops'. Third, the ubiquitous hosts of 'talk radio' and television cable news, from which a large percentage of the public receives its information, are almost uniformly behind the President, and eager to call anyone who dares criticize him a traitor.
Some of the media recently played up the whodunit story about why Bush's State of the Union address last January included the dubious (even then) assertion that Saddam Hussein purchased uranium from Niger. But the story has gone nowhere because the Democrats don't know what to do with it, and the media aren't particularly interested in probing further.
Tony Blair has been in office a long time. This weekend he gains the distinction of being Britain's longest continuously-serving Labour Prime Minister. A politician in office this long naturally gathers enemies and courts disillusionment. But George W. Bush is still a relative newcomer. To be sure, he was elected in 2000 without a mandate to do much of anything. In fact, most Americans had voted for his opponent, Al Gore. Yet after 11 September he received the strongest mandate any American President has possessed since World War II.
Bush has been fighting a 'war on terrorism' for less than two years, and most Americans are still willing to forgive setbacks and overlook inconvenient facts, at least for the moment. But if a guerrilla war in Iraq continues into the autumn, with American soldiers dying and no clear sign the country is stabilizing, his honeymoon may be over.
Robert Reich is professor of social and economic policy at Brandeis University, former US Secretary of Labour under Bill Clinton, and author, most recently, of The Future of Success.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003