Speaker by Various Artists

Potus visits

by David Williams

He's the laughing stock of the free world. It just so happens he's also the leader of it.

The great thing about him is that he provides so much material to giggle at. Let's enjoy some classic quotes:

"More and more of our imports come from overseas." September, 2000.

"The problem with the French is that they don't have a word for entrepreneur." July, 2002

"They misunderestimate me." November, 2000.

Of course I'm talking about US President George W Bush. Some call him Dubya. Officials, so they tell us, call him Potus - which is short for President of the United States. Last week tens of thousands of people marched through central London to mark the great man's visit to Britain, all with differing reasons and agendas. They had a few different names for Mr Bush, most of which I can't repeat here ...

Whatever you call him, last week was a good chance for protesters to gather and indulge in an evening of good old-fashioned Bush bashing; a tantalising tongue-lashing for the Toxic Texan.

"The pretzel that almost saved the world," read one sign (with picture) being carried by a young woman in Trafalgar Square. Another sign made assertions about Blair's "WMD" and Bush's "orifice". Enduring images of a Bush effigy being toppled, and then mockingly smacked by hand-held shoes, were beamed around the world - in an obvious piss-take of the Saddam statue-toppling in Baghdad.

Bush was seen as a bit of an easy target, however. Most "serious" demonstrators seemed more concerned with reminding the British public that Blair (or B.liar as he is known at these marches) "lied" to the public over the Iraq war, hoping that would strike a mortal blow to his re-election campaign.

I wonder, then, what these people make of Mr Bush's Thanksgiving visit to Baghdad?

In an audacious stunt, Mr Bush secretly flew into the country he helped to make the most dangerous place in the world, spending a couple of hours with about 600 stunned soldiers. It was so secret that White House communications director Dan Bartlett told a handpicked group of journalists "if this breaks while we are in the air, we‚re turning around".

It was obvious what London's Independent made of it. "The turkey has landed" the headline said, over a picture of Bush, resplendent in military jacket, carrying said (cooked) bird. "Moment of pure theatre for tearful President" said the cynical Times headline. A surprisingly neutral Guardian blandly stated "Bush's surprise trip to Baghdad".

Bush aides had obviously decided his worldwide lap of honour for the "successful" campaign in Iraq hadn't yielded enough photo opportunities. There was Dubya in Australia's parliament (minus a public gallery and two outspoken MPs). There was Dubya and wife Laura with Her Maj and Prince Philip (minus a Daily Mirror reporter - so we didn't get to find out if the Presidential dog ate his bacon sandwiches). And of course there was Dubya with the British public (Blair's neighbours in Sedgefield and a few footie-playing school kids under strict instructions not to do anything but smile and whoop).

What a photo opportunity his flying visit to Baghdad turned out to be, dominating the front pages of most British broadsheets on Friday.

I think we're seeing the lengths to which President Bush the Second will go to, to be re-elected. He doesn't want to follow the same road as Bush Snr - a war in Iraq and then getting booted out of the White House. As a party, the Republicans have obviously decided after lean times during the Clinton years, they quite like being in power, thank you very much.

The problem Bush and Co. face is the Democrats have a fairly large, and convincing, file against a second term for the incumbents. This includes his pulling out of treaties on greenhouse gas emissions and anti-ballistic missiles, running up the biggest deficits in US history and making the rich richer with tax cuts. International relations have been hampered by the Israel saga and, more recently, steel tariffs. Oh, and that Iraq thing.

But while the Democrats are fluffing around trying to find the ideal candidate, Mr Bush's campaign team is in full re-election mode. And despite their poor record in a number of areas - a booming economy being a notable exception - the Republicans still command solid support.

You've got to remember Mr Bush was appointed to a post after an election he didn't win. This guy may come across as a buffoon, but either he, or the people close to him, must be as clever as a shithouse rat - otherwise he, and his people, wouldn't be there.

One of the subtle changes in recent months, which I believe shows how clever this regime can be, is the gradual sidelining of the president's "hawks" - Vice-President Dick Cheney and Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. This has been coupled with the rise of "doves" Secretary of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, the National Security Adviser.

Cheney and Rumsfeld, who have dropped off the international media radar of late, could be paying the price for telling Mr Bush how to win a war but not the peace. The Vice-Pres has been dogged with allegations of favouring his old firm Halliburton with $US2.5 billion of Iraq reconstruction money. Meanwhile, Rummy's hard line statements on Arab nations, like Syria, and coining the phrase "Old Europe" wouldn't have won him too many friends abroad.

Powell might have been promoted to the front bench after being the "sacrificial lamb" at the UN before the Iraq war and last year's Earth Summit in South Africa, while Ms Rice is believed to be one of the president's closest advisers. The Rice-Powell combination is a much more conciliatory diplomatic face in light of the Iraq debacle.

There was no greater sign of this phenomenon than in Bush's keynote foreign affairs speech in London last week. Powell and Rice were there in the front row, side-by-side, clapping like library monitors at a primary school assembly.

While there has been some playing with pawns in the shadows, in daylight we now have this astounding visit by Mr Bush to Baghdad to mull over. Just look at the coverage he's getting - albeit not all positive. Already it is being hailed as a masterstroke, with Times diplomatic editor Richard Beeston describing it as "one of the most daring stunts in modern American history".

My headline for the visit would read: "Bush's Baghdad election stunt (Democrats and the free world beware)!"

No, Mr President, we will not misunderestimate you again.