SO about those weapons of mass destruction ...
I'd love to tee off on the failure, two months after the fall of Baghdad, to find Iraq's supposed arsenal. But with my luck, a cache of weapons bigger than Ruben Studdard would turn up right as the newspaper was landing in people's bushes.
That's the problem with the argument that the White House exaggerated the threat posed by Saddam Hussein. It tumbles like a house of cards with the discovery of the first canister of nerve gas. Critics are in the unenviable position of trying to prove a negative, to demonstrate that a thing is not. It's not unlike trying to grab pudding in your fist.
Not that that has stopped people from trying. Indeed, we'll probably soon see congressional hearings into perceived failures of intelligence analysis. Lawmakers will be trying to determine if the spy community misled the president or the president misled the world, neither of which is the sort of conclusion that facilitates a restful night's sleep.
This week, the White House struck back. The president's top foreign-policy advisers, Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, made the rounds of the Sunday interview shows to emphasize the administration's conviction that the elusive weapons exist and will be found. Bush himself told reporters that he remains certain Iraq had a "weapons program."
The use of the phrase "weapons program" as opposed to "weapons" was seen by some observers as a subtle, but telling, indicator that the administration was pulling back from its previously unequivocal claim that Iraq was in possession of weapons banned by the UN at the time of the U.S.-led invasion.
Maybe so. Still, though I don't begrudge the president's critics their criticism, the administration's central points — that Saddam's regime possessed banned weapons in the recent past and that it may take more time than any of us would like to find them — seem fair to me. We'd be well-served to be patient here, though not infinitely so.
Frankly, what troubles me more than the question of when the arsenal will be found is the fact that we the people don't seem to care overmuch if it's found or not. Before the war, the Bush administration said, emphatically and repeatedly, that the presence of banned weapons was the one thing that made the invasion an urgent necessity. And 41 percent of us told the Gallup Organization that only conclusive evidence of the weapons' existence would justify the war.
Two months later, and with no weapons in sight, our convictions are, to say the least, wavering. According to a Gallup poll released earlier this month, 56 percent of us now say the war was justified whether weapons are discovered or not.
That change bespeaks a moral malleability that is singularly unattractive. More to the point, it bespeaks a disturbing willingness to rationalize this event, as if to say, now that it is a fait accompli, it no longer matters why we did it. And if the old reason is no longer operative, it's perfectly OK to sub in a new one.
One gets the sense that we are unwilling to face the idea — and at this point, it is nothing more — that we were misled on the path to war. That the justification we were given may in fact have been unjust. Our response to this possibility amounts to a collective shrug.
And that is obscene.
Moreover, it suggests a blithe disregard for the loss of life the war entailed, as if it ultimately doesn't matter why all those people died. One cause serves as well as another, even at the risk of severe damage to American credibility and prestige?
Much is at stake here. The least you and I can do is demonstrate a willingness to demand accountability should accountability be required. These people work for us. This government is answerable to us.
And public opinion is a weapon of mass destruction, too.
Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr.'s column appears Sunday on editorial pages of The Times.
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