The news is grim, but the president is "optimistic". The intelligence is sobering, but he tosses aside "pessimistic predictions". His opponent says he has "no credibility", but the president replies that it is his rival who is "twisting in the wind". The UN secretary general speaks of the "rule of law", but he talks before a mute general assembly of "a new definition of security". Between the rhetoric and the reality lies the campaign.
In Iraq, US commanders have plans for this week and the next, but there is "no overarching strategy", I was told by a reliable source who has just returned after assessing the facts on the ground for US intelligence services. The New York Times reports that an offensive is in the works to capture the insurgent stronghold of Falluja - after the election. In the meantime, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and other terrorists linked to al-Qaida operate from there at will, as they have for more than a year. The president speaks of new Iraqi security forces, but not even half the US personnel have been assigned to the headquarters of the Multinational Security Transition Command.
George Bush's vision of the liberation of Iraq has melted before harsh facts. But reality cannot be allowed to obscure the image. The liberation is "succeeding", he insists, and only pessimists cannot see it.
In July, the CIA delivered to the president a new national intelligence estimate that detailed three gloomy scenarios for Iraq's future, ranging up to civil war. Perhaps it was his reading of the estimate that prompted Bush to remark in August that the war on terrorism could not be won, a judgment he swiftly reversed. And at the UN, Bush held a press conference where he rebuffed the latest intelligence.
Bush explained that, for him, intelligence is not to inform decision-making, but to be used or rejected to advance an ideological and political agenda. His dismissal is an affirmation of the politicisation and corruption of intelligence that rationalised the war.
In his stump speech, which he repeats word for word across the country, Bush explains that he invaded Iraq because of "the lesson of September the 11th". WMD goes unmentioned; the only reason Bush offers is Saddam Hussein as an agent of terrorism. "He was a sworn enemy of the United States of America; he had ties to terrorist networks. Do you remember Abu Nidal? He's the guy that killed Leon Klinghoffer. Leon Klinghoffer was murdered because of his religion. Abu Nidal was in Baghdad, as was his organisation."
The period of Leon Klinghoffer's murder in 1985 on the liner Achille Lauro (by Abu Abbas, in fact) coincided with the US courtship of Saddam, marked by the celebrated visits of then Middle East envoy Donald Rumsfeld. The US collaborated in intelligence exchanges and materially supported Saddam in his war with Iran, authorising the sale of biological agents for Saddam's laboratories, a diversification of his WMD capability.
The reason was not born of idealism, but necessity: the threat of an expansive Iran-controlled Shia fundamentalism to the entire Gulf.
The policy of courting Saddam continued until he invaded Kuwait. But realpolitik prevailed when US forces held back from capturing Baghdad for larger, geostrategic reasons. The first Bush grasped that in wars to come, the US would need ad hoc coalitions to share the military burden and financial cost. Taking Baghdad would have violated the UN resolution that gave legitimacy to the first Gulf war, as well as creating a nightmare of "Lebanonisation", as secretary of state James Baker called it. Realism prevailed; Saddam's power was subdued and drastically reduced. It was the greatest accomplishment of the first President Bush.
When he honoured the UN resolution, the credibility of the US in the region was enormously enhanced, enabling serious movement on the Middle East peace process. Now this President Bush has undone the foundation of his father's work, which was built upon by President Clinton.
Bush's campaign depends on the containment of any contrary perception of reality. He must evade, deny and suppress it. His true opponent is not his Democratic foe - called unpatriotic and the candidate of al-Qaida by the vice-president - but events. Bush's latest vision is his shield against them. He invokes the power of positive thinking, as taught by Emile Coue, guru of autosuggestion in the giddy 1920s, who urged mental improvement through constant repetition: "Every day in every way I am getting better and better."
It was during this era of illusion that TS Eliot wrote The Hollow Men:
Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow."
· Sidney Blumenthal, a former senior adviser to President Clinton, is Washington bureau chief of salon.com
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004