Truth is like water. You can try to dam it, block it, plug it and obstruct it, but it never stops trying to run free.
And thank goodness for that.
Last week, after months of stubborn denial, the truth leaked from the lips of Secretary of State Colin Powell. He conceded, openly and in public, that he has seen no concrete evidence of a link between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida.
"But I think the possibility of a link did exist," Powell said, "and it was prudent to consider them at the time that we did."
That is stunning. A year ago, during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, Powell and others claimed such ironclad evidence of a Saddam-al-Qaida link that it made military action mandatory. War, we were told, had been forced upon us.
"Iraqi officials deny accusations of ties with al-Qaida," Powell told the United Nations. "Those denials are simply not credible."
In that same presentation, of course, Powell also claimed clear and conclusive evidence that Iraq possessed vast stores of weapons of mass destruction in violation of U.N. resolutions. "Our conservative estimate is that Iraq today has a stockpile of between 100 and 500 tons of chemical weapons agent," Powell told the world, outlining just part of the alleged Iraqi inventory of WMD.
Well, that may have been an estimate by conservatives. But it was not by any means a conservative estimate because none of the material existed. None. Not so much as a vial.
Today, our 1,400-member WMD search team is being dismantled and assigned to other tasks. The head of the WMD team, David Kay, is reportedly about to resign and return home. The postwar evidence is overwhelming that Iraq did not possess WMD and had not for years; it did not even possess programs to produce WMD.
A dwindling few, of course, still try to deny that reality. But to borrow from Powell, "those denials are simply not credible."
In one sense, nothing is changed by the prewar justification being false. We have invaded Iraq and assumed responsibility for its future; regardless of how we got there, we must make every effort to create a stable, humane government in that country before leaving. The task will be difficult, expensive and lengthy, and it will exact a continuing toll in the lives of our best and bravest. But it must be done.
In another sense, though, it matters a great deal. A nation that holds itself up to the world as the exemplar of representative democracy cannot blithely ignore the fact that its elected representatives were led into war under false pretenses.
In October 2002, there was no way on earth that Congress would have voted to authorize war had it known the truth. "The possibility of a link" between Iraq and al-Qaida would not have been considered sufficient cause for invasion. Nor would Congress have voted to spend hundreds of billions of dollars and the lives of 500 American soldiers and counting because Iraq possessed the intention to someday create programs that might someday in the future be used to create weapons of mass destruction.
In fact, as I recall, those who had dared to suggest that there must be some other reason for the war, because this talk of Iraqi WMD and alleged ties to al-Qaida made no sense, were accused of spouting wild theories unsupported by fact. As it turns out, the wild theories unsupported by fact were coming from the most powerful people in the U.S. government.
Do we not care how this happened? Are Americans not curious to know how much of this was an honest mistake, and how much of it was official deception? To ignore such questions -- to leave undisturbed the intelligence systems and personnel that created the problem -- is to increase the likelihood of being deceived again in the future.
It is time, past time, to put this controversy behind us and move on. But that won't be possible until we acknowledge the truth and deal with its consequences. The first half of that task -- acknowledging the truth -- is all but accomplished. Now, what will its consequence be?
Jay Bookman is the deputy editorial page editor.
© 2004 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution