One has to go back to the lesser Roman emperors of the second century to find an imperial suzerain as dismal as Bush. Tuesday's speech was surely the worst State of the Union address to Congress in the past 30 years, as the commander-in-chief stumbled through a thicket of brazen fictions toward the proposed rendezvous with destiny on Feb. 5, the day Secretary of State Colin Powell is scheduled to make his way to the United Nations to present the administration's latest "intelligence" confection on the topic of Saddam's deceits.

If you want to get a taste of how these ramshackle "intelligence" reports are assembled, take a look at "Apparatus of Lies: Saddam's Disinformation and Propaganda, 1990-2003," recently issued by the White House and invoked Tuesday night by the 43rd president.

By way of illustrating the all-around deviousness of Saddam's propaganda machine, the White House document cites on page 23 the Pakistani news outlet Inqilab as having reported on Jan. 27, 1991, that "The American pop star Madonna was in Saudi Arabia, entertaining U.S. troops." The White House comments triumphantly: "Madonna never went to Saudi Arabia." Moral: If Saddam can lie about Madonna, he can certainly bring the Big One out of some bunker in Tikrit, Iraq, and drop it on Jerusalem.

Bush's speech, if one can dignify the same with a word intended to designate ordered rhetoric, was a backhanded compliment to David Frum, the former White House speech writer who was fired last year after his wife proudly disclosed that he had invented the phrase "axis of evil." No such exciting phrases adorned Bush's second State of the Union address. In the first half of the address, Bush stumbled through his prescriptions to make the rich richer with the timbre of an inexperienced waiter reciting the specials. He even blew the opening and most outrageous lie of all, that "We will not pass along problems" to future generations, a pledge launched amid a vista of red ink as far as the eye can see, as those future generations pick up the tab for Bush's handouts to the super-rich today, to the arms companies, the drug industry and other prime contributors.

On the likelihood of a U.S. attack on Iraq I've tended to be a maybe-not type of guy. But now, after all the hoopla and the build-up, how can G. Bush not launch his attack in Baghdad? He's got no exit strategy, even as he and the mad Donald Rumsfeld shove their feet ever deeper into their mouths. Suppose the troops all come home with not a missile or a bullet fired.

But is it really feasible to imagine the War Party flouting the opinions of the United Nations, of NATO, of much of the Congress and the huge slice of the American public opposed to unilateral action without clear evidence that Iraq is a clear and present threat? Only 29 percent support the What-the-Hell, Let's-Go-It-Alone path.

The coverage of anti-war protests around the world on Jan. 18 has been scandalously bad. Many reporters and editors opted for demure phrases such as "tens of thousands," which scarcely does justice to turnouts in excess of a quarter of a million. Friends of mine at the demonstration in Washington, D.C., said the one last October was double that of the first, in the spring of 2002, and that the Jan. 18 demo had doubled the crowd in October, giving a rough Jan. 18 total of 300,000 (the estimate of a cop who'd been at all three). There were anywhere from 50,000 to 200,000 people in San Francisco, and 20,000 in downtown Portland. There were big demonstrations in Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver, Edmonton and Halifax and others in France, Japan, Pakistan, Britain, Sweden, Syria, Belgium, Egypt, Lebanon and New Zealand.

I just hauled an Airstream across America, from South Carolina to Northern California. No one I met was keen on war with Iraq. The mayor of Salt Lake City said publicly it's a lousy idea, as did the entire city council of Chicago with one dissenting voice. Mostly the local papers were filled with stories about state budget crises. After all, only two states are solvent: New Mexico and Wyoming, courtesy of their natural gas. Texas has a deficit of around $9 billion this year and $11 billion next year, due in part to the long shadow of Bush's favors to the rich down there when he was governor. "We will not pass along problems ." Yeah, right!

Alexander Cockburn is coeditor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at COPYRIGHT 2003 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.