Colin Powell, the US secretary of state, could learn a great deal from how his son has handled Janet Jackson's right breast. The singer bared her bosom during a raunchy dance with Justin Timberlake in the Super Bowl half-time show last weekend.
Jackson apologized, saying that she did plan a "reveal", but Timberlake was supposed only to rip off her rubber black bustier to show a red lace bra (so that's all right then). Timberlake blamed it on a "wardrobe malfunction". The National Football League, which staged the match, blamed CBS, the television network which screened it. CBS blamed MTV, to which it had contracted out the half-time entertainment. MTV blamed Janet Jackson. And the media conglomerate Viacom, which owns both CBS and MTV, insists that it has nothing to do with them.
So it was left to Michael Powell, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, to declare his "outrage" and order a "swift and thorough" investigation, which could result in fines worth millions of dollars if CBS and its affiliates are shown to have breached indecency guidelines.
Let's leave aside for a moment the value system of a government that can order an immediate inquiry into a bare breast and take a year to launch one into a bare-faced lie presented as a pretext for war. For there is a far more important principle at hand than the US government's calibration of indecency.
At best somewhere along the way on Super Bowl night there was an unfortunate mistake, either individual or systemic. At worst, and more likely, this was a cynical, tasteless publicity stunt. Either way it was wrong, and Michael Powell is going to make sure that whoever is responsible will pay the price.
Hold that thought. Now cast your mind back to the United Nation's security council chamber a year ago last Friday. With the help of tapes, aerial photographs and a PowerPoint presentation, Michael Powell's father, Colin, illustrates the US government's case that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction. Jabbing the air and slapping the table, he offers "not assertions, but facts" and "evidence, not conjecture".
Colin Powell's "evidence" and "facts" have been proven to be not only "assertions" and "conjecture", but erroneous ones at that. But one year, one war, no UN resolution and thousands of deaths later, we are still waiting for someone to pay the price for a conflict that never needed to start and sparked a resistance that shows no sign of ending.
Fatal blunders like these, it seems, are priceless. The politicians who authorized the war, at a time when to stand against it posed a political risk, say they were tricked. The intelligence agencies who provided the material to justify it say they were pressured or misinterpreted. The leaders who used that material to make their case for it say they were misinformed or misunderstood. And the military, of course, just follows orders. No one takes responsibility, no one has yet been held accountable.
Sooner or later a hopeless minister or hapless civil servant, possibly even the head of the CIA, might be sacked. This would be the equivalent of Jackson firing her dressmaker. It will satisfy not those who want to solve the problem, but those who want it to go away.
Sadly the inquiries to be launched in Britain and the US have been limited to intelligence. The premise for this war was not security but politics - it's the politicians who should be in the dock.
The fact that they will not be reflects badly not just on the governments concerned but on all of us. If a country can be led to war on false pretexts and there are no substantive consequences as a result, there is something seriously wrong with both politicians and the political culture that produces them. In a democracy worthy of the name, if the machinery of government cannot call those responsible to account, civil society and the ballot box must.
This war is not just killing Iraqi civilians, resistance fighters and coalition soldiers. It's murdering any pretence that we live in countries that value, let alone practice, the principle of democratic accountability. It calls into question our ability to rein in political excess and to root out state-sponsored incompetence.
"We had no choice," Bush said yesterday. But the case for war was always weak and unpopular on its own terms. Iraq posed no immediate threat and had no connection with September 11, and the action did not have the support of the UN. Even if the invasion had uncovered WMD, it would have been wrong. That it didn't makes its failure, by the miserably low standards the US and Britain set themselves, abject and absolute.
The most compelling defense of both governments is ignorance. They thought Saddam Hussein had WMD and it turns out he didn't, but it was impossible to know because he ran a dictatorship and had a record of lying. Donald Rumsfeld, the US defense secretary, took this to absurd extremes this weekend, claiming that Saddam tricked the US into war with his "deception and defiance". "It was his choice," says Rumsfeld. None the less, it is true that nobody knew for sure before the war if Saddam had WMD. But it is even truer that anyone who claimed to know for sure that Iraq did have them was lying.
Two different US panels concluded in 1998 that there was no hard evidence of secret weapons programs. The first, the arms control and non-proliferation advisory board, consisted of eminent scientists. It found the CIA's intelligence mostly speculative. "There were suspicions, hints, but nothing hard," one member told Newsweek. The second was led by none other than Rumsfeld and reached similar conclusions.
That was precisely why the UN sent in inspectors - to ascertain if there was any substance to these suspicions. For most of the world - including most US citizens - ignorance was a reason to wait and see. Left to his own devices, Hans Blix would have told us through peaceful means what we now know as a result of war and occupation - that there are no WMD.
But for the US and Britain, ignorance was used as an excuse to attack. The Bush administration's policies of regime change and pre-emptive strike required no proof before prosecution - it's Britain's disgraced shoot-to-kill policy in Northern Ireland gone global.
Now ignorance seems to be their only defense George Tenet says the CIA "never said there was an imminent threat". Well, somebody did. Tony Blair says he did not know that Saddam was incapable of firing long-range chemical and biological weapons. Well, somebody did. President Bush now says he wants "to know all the facts". What did he want to know before? "The absence of a stockpile changes the political calculus," says Powell Sr. "It changes the answer you get." Wrong again. If the question is "Should we have gone to war?" then the answer is still no. What is changed is that with each dissembling statement, the public is listening just that little bit more closely.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004