How small he looked in the high-backed chair. You had to sit in the auditorium of the UN General Assembly yesterday to realise that George Bush Jnr â€“ threatening war in what was built as a house of peace â€“ could appear such a little man. But then again Julius Caesar was a little man and so was Napoleon Bonaparte. So were other more modern, less mentionable world leaders. Come to think of it so was General Douglas MacArthur, who had his own axis of evil, which took him all the way to the Yalu river.
But yesterday, two-thirds of the way through his virtual declaration of war, there came a little, dangerous, telltale code, which suggested that President Bush really does intend to send his tanks across the Tigris river. “The United States has no quarrel with the Iraqi people,” he said. In the press gallery, nobody stirred. Below us, not a diplomat shifted in his seat. The speech had already rambled on for 20 minutes but the speechwriters must have known what this meant when they cobbled it together.
Before President Reagan bombed Libya in 1985, he announced that America “had no quarrel with the Libyan people.” Before he bombed Iraq in 1991, Bush the Father told the world that the United States “had no quarrel with the Iraqi people”. Last year Bush the Son, about the strike at the Taliban and al-Qa’ida, told us he “had no quarrel with the people of Afghanistan”. And now that frightening mantra was repeated. There was no quarrel, Mr Bush said â€“ absolutely none â€“ with the Iraqi people. So it’s flak jackets on.
Perhaps it was the right place to understand just how far the Bush administration’s obsession with Iraq might take us. The green marble fittings, the backcloth wall of burnished gold and the symbol of that dangerous world shielded by the UN’s palm trees gave Mr Bush the furnishings of an emperor, albeit a diminutive one. Just a day earlier, he told us, America had commemorated an attack that had “brought grief to my country”.
But he didn’t mention Osama bin Laden, not once. It was Saddam Hussein to whom we had to be reintroduced â€“ he used Saddam’s name seven times in his address, with countless references to the “Iraqi regime”.
Riding that veil of American tears which bin Laden’s killers had created, it was also clear that the Bush plans for the Middle East were on a far greater scale than the mere overthrow of the Iraqi leader who once regarded himself as America’s best friend in the Gulf. There must be a democratic Afghanistan â€“ President Hamid Karzai vigorously nodded his approval â€“ and there must be democracy in Palestine; and this would lead to “reforms throughout the Muslim world”. Reforms? In Saudi Arabia? In Jordan? In Iran? We were not told.
The Bush theme, of course, was an all too familiar one, of Saddamite evil, lashed with the usual caveats, conditional clauses and historical distortions. We all know Saddam Hussein is a vicious, cruel dictator â€“ we knew that when he was our friend â€“ but the President insisted on telling us again. Saddam had repeatedly flouted UN Security Council resolutions; no mention here, of course, of Israel’s flouting of resolutions 242 and 338 demanding an end to the occupation of Palestinian land.
Mr Bush spoke of the tens of thousands of opponents of Saddam Hussein who had been arrested and imprisoned and summarily executed and tortured â€“ “all of these horrors concealed from the world by the apparatus of a totalitarian state”.
But there was no mention, unfortunately, that all these beatings and burnings and electric shocks and mutilations and rapes were being merrily perpetrated when America was on very good terms with Iraq before 1990, when the Pentagon was sending intelligence information to Saddam to help him kill more Iranians.
Indeed one of the most telling aspects of the Bush speech was that all the sins of which he specifically accused the Iraqis â€“ a good proportion of which are undoubtedly true â€“ began in the crucial year of 1991. There was no reference to Saddam’s flouting of UN resolutions when the Americans were helping him. There were a few reminders by Mr Bush of the gas attacks against Iran â€“ without mentioning that this very same Iran is now supposed to be part of the “axis of evil”.
Then there were the little grammatical problems, the slight of hand historians use when they cannot find the evidence to prove that Richard III really did kill the princes in the tower. If it wasn’t for the 1991 Gulf War, Iraq “would likely” have possessed a nuclear weapon by 1993. Iraq “retains the physical infrastructure need to build” a nuclear weapon â€“ which is not the same thing as actually building it. The phrase “should Iraq acquire fissile material” doesn’t mean it has. And being told that Iraq’s enthusiasm for nuclear scientists “leaves little doubt” about its appetite for nuclear weapons isn’t quite the same having it proved.
Maybe this supposition is true â€“ but is that the evidence upon which America will go to war? The UN â€“ for this was the emperor’s message to the delegates sitting before him â€“ could take it or leave it, join America in war or end up like that old donkey, the League of Nations. Believe it or not, Mr Bush actually mentioned the League, dismissing it as a talking shop without adding that the US had refused to join.
But it was clear how Mr Bush would sell his war on the back of 11 September. “Our greatest fear is that terrorists will find a shortcut to their mad ambitions when an outlaw regime supplies them with the technologies to kill on a massive scale,” he said. And there you have it. Osama bin Laden equals Saddam Hussein and â€“ who knows â€“ Iran or Syria or anyone else. What was the name of that river which Julius Caesar crossed? Was it not called the Rubicon? Yesterday, Mr Bush may have crossed the very same river.