One explanation for President Bush's rant against Iran this week, following on from his extraordinary speech comparing Iraq with Vietnam last week, is that the pressure is finally getting to him. US presidential history, from Woodrow Wilson to Ronald Reagan by way of F D Roosevelt is replete with presidents who on grounds of failing powers shouldn't really have been allowed to go on. Beseiged by events, cast down by the opinion polls, isolated by the loss of his closest advisers, it would not be surprising if this particular US President was now losing it.
It's unnerving for the rest of the world, of course, as Bush's finger is still on the nuclear button, raising the terrifying prospect that his vision of nuclear holocaust in the Middle East could be set off not by Tehran but the US President himself launching an attack on Iran which then involved Israel with all its nuclear weaponry. It's unlikely, I know, but it's not something that can absolutely be ruled out given the way that the White House is now ramping up the confrontation with Iran.
The more likely explanation for Bush's increasingly apocalyptic tone, however, is in some ways more worrying. It is that all eyes in Washington are now exclusively directed to the domestic audience with the added sting that the White House is under the control of a president who does not need to seek re-election and has the will to go down like a western hero, all guns blazing.
Raising the spectre of Vietnam to an audience of veterans - as Bush did last week - clothes him in a patriotic flag, alongside those on the right who have always believed that Vietnam was a self-inflicted defeat not a disastrous war from the start (try telling that to the Vietnamese, Laotians or Cambodians).
When you bring in Iran you enter even more fertile territory for a President trying to paint himself as a lone Ranger and paint his opponents into a corner. There may be few in the US, and even fewer now in Congress, who want America to launch a new Middle East invasion after the disaster of the last, but most Americans believe that Iran is a threat to world peace, intent on developing nuclear weapons and ripe for regime change. Playing the Iran card wrong-foots your opponents (look at the problems Barak Obama got into when he urged direct talks with Tehran) and (theoretically at least) garners domestic support in reaction to foreign threat.
Domestic advantage doesn't make good policy, however, particularly when it comes to quite so volatile a situation as the Middle East. The trouble with demonising Iran is that you play right into the hands of the most xenophobic and extremist elements in the region. The more America makes Iran the special object of its fear and loathing, the more opinion in the Muslim street, Arab as well as Iranian, makes a hero of it. No wonder President Ahmadinejad - a sort of Hugo Chavez of the Middle East - laps it all up, countering every accusation from Bush with deliberately provocative speeches proclaiming US failures in Iraq and Iranian successes in developing nuclear technology.
Given the state of the country's finances and Ahmadinejad's desperate firings and contortions in the economic sphere, the Persian populist would be in deep trouble at home if it were not for the outside pressure. Like Bush, he needs a foreign threat to keep his head above domestic water. Nor, for all his posturing on the holocaust and Israel, is Ahmadinejad in charge of nuclear or foreign policy, where authority has been deliberately concentrated on much more experienced heads who have consistently sought accomodation with the West on the understanding that Washington in return accepts what Tehran regards as its legitimate interests as a power in the region.
Keep calling Iran names and keep threatening it openly with military attack and all you will do is to strengthen the hands of those who feel Iran must develop nuclear weapons, should stoke up trouble in Iraq and Palestine and clamp down on internal dissent in response. Anyone who wants change inside Iran, especially those within, have had their cause painfully set back by a US President who keeps saying he supports them.
Which leaves Britain stuck right in the middle, twisting and turning much as the Democrats in Washington are. London wants out of Iraq but doesn't want responsibility for the carnage that might ensue. Brown and his colleagues would dearly wish a Democrat in the White House but still have to cope with this Republican with nearly a year and a half to go. Worse, as they read Bush's latest outpourings, is the knowledge that this is a President who is becoming more divorced from reality and more confrontational with each week.
© 2007 The Independent