Forty-five per cent of the American electorate love George Bush; 45% loathe him. Their minds are made up, pro and con, and there is little chance of changing them. Ten per cent, more or less, remain undecided. The undecided will determine the outcome, at least of the popular vote. There may be again, as in 2000, an electoral-college misfire by which the popular-vote winner loses the White House.
War haunts America. Iraq and terrorism forced their way last week into the third presidential debate, ostensibly dedicated to domestic issues. There is no immunity for wartime presidents. In 1952, the unpopularity of the Korean war led President Truman to withdraw from the contest. In 1968, the Vietnam war drove President Johnson from office. The swift victory of President Bush the Elder in the first Iraq war was of small benefit when he was defeated for re-election in 1992. On the other hand, President Nixon running against George McGovern - like Senator Kerry, a decorated war hero turned into a war critic - scored a smashing triumph in 1972.
President Bush the Younger categorically defends his launching of the second Iraq war. He has no doubt about the rightness of his course or the brilliance of his team. President Kennedy dismissed the CIA advisers who led him into the Bay of Pigs. Despite the Pentagon's build-up of Ahmad Chalabi, despite torture and Abu Ghraib, despite the incompetence of postwar planning, despite the collapse of his reasons for looking on Iraq as a clear and present danger to the US, President Bush has dismissed few senior officials.
The recent report by Charles Duelfer, the top American arms inspector for Iraq, effectively destroyed what remains of the contention that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. The second reason Mr Bush gave was the alleged partnership between the secular Muslim Saddam Hussein and the Muslim fundamentalist Osama bin Laden. The Bush administration put over this allegation so successfully that 42% of the American people, according to an October poll, still believe that Saddam was personally involved in 9/11. But the secretary of defence, Donald Rumsfeld, and President Bush himself admitted that they had no hard evidence of the existence of the evil partnership.
The third reason was the liberation of the people of Iraq from a monstrous tyrant. But Paul Wolfowitz, deputy secretary of defence and long-time advocate of the war on Iraq, said that liberation by itself was "not a reason to put American kids' lives at risk". Two reasons having been shot down from under him, the American president is left with a reason once deemed an inadequate justification for American kids to kill or be killed. George Bush, and Tony Blair too, are unquestionably right when they say that the world is a happier place now that Saddam Hussein is behind bars. But was it worth the price of more than 1,000 American lives and heaven knows how many Iraqis?
The second Iraq war fits into Bush the Younger's strategy of "pre-emption". There is deliberate confusion here. Preventive war has a bad reputation in Washington. It is not only due to imperial Japan's preventive strike at the American fleet in Pearl Harbor, but Presidents Truman and Eisenhower explicitly rejected preventive war, and those recommending preventive war against the Soviet Union were generally derided as loonies.
So the Bush administration replaced "preventive" by "pre-emptive". The distinction between "pre-emptive" and "preventive" is worth preserving - it is the distinction between legality and illegality. "Pre-emptive" war refers to a direct, immediate, specific threat that must be met at once. In the words of a department of defence manual, "an attack initiated on the basis of incontrovertible evidence that an enemy attack is imminent". "Preventive" war refers to potential, future and, therefore, speculative attacks.
"Daniel Webster wrote a very famous defence of anticipatory self-defence," Condoleezza Rice, President Bush's national security adviser, informed the press. Dr Rice, the former provost of Stanford, does not know her American history. According to Secretary of State Webster's "famous" 1841 statement, a pre-emptive reaction could be justified only on very narrow grounds - if the prospective attack showed "a necessity of self-defence, instant, overwhelming, leaving no choice of means, and no moment for deliberation". This was manifestly not the case with Iraq. It was not a pre-emptive war. It was a preventive war.
Preventive war rests on the premise that the preventer has accurate and reliable knowledge about the evil enemy's capabilities and intentions. It rests on the assumption of the perfectibility of the intelligence process. It rests therefore not on fact, but on prophecy. Yet history outwits all our certitudes.
This aphorism does not commend itself to the younger Bush. He is an unrepentant preventive warrior. His re-election is far from certain; but he would take re-election as an endorsement of his first term and would probably see it as a national mandate to pursue his methods and goals during a second term. Already, premonitory warnings against Iran are eerily reminiscent of those that preceded the preventive war against Iraq. He might take it as a national mandate to pursue the policy of truculent unilateralism. Already the Bush administration's contempt for "old Europe", the UN and international institutions is hardly concealed. Never in American history has the republic been so unpopular abroad, so mistrusted, feared, even hated.
President Bush is a militant idealist. He proposes to use America's military, economic and cultural power to spread "liberty". However, there are a lot of bad guys on the planet. Is the US obliged to eliminate them all? Does the US serve as the world's judge, jury and executioner?
As John Quincy Adams, perhaps our greatest secretary of state, said, America, while sympathising with struggling peoples, "goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy". Should America seek out monsters, Adams continued, "the fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force ... She might become the dictatress of the world: she would no longer be the ruler of her own spirit."
That is the significance, for America and the world, of the American presidential election.
Arthur Schlesinger was an adviser to President Kennedy. His most recent book is War and the American Presidency, published by WW Norton.
© 2004 Guardian Newspapers, Ltd.