With its admission that an alleged link between Saddam Hussein and the Sept. 11 attacks doesn't exist, the Bush administration has lost its most compelling argument for invading Iraq.
For eight months, the most intensive international investigation in history attempted to pin the massacre at the World Trade Center, the Pennsylvania plane crash and the attack on the Pentagon on the leader the United States most wants to topple. Last week, in response to a Newsweek report, senior administration officials conceded they had no evidence to support that theory.
In the end, the case for Hussein as super-villain of choice and the next target of the "war on terrorism" hung on a slim thread -- an alleged meeting in Prague between hijacker Mohamed Atta and an Iraqi diplomat. That thread has snapped, even as the United States is gearing up for another war with Iraq; the FBI and CIA now state no such meeting occurred. That's inconvenient for some in the media who went wild over Czech government claims, long since withdrawn, that it had evidence of the Prague meeting.
For example, New York Times columnist William Safire led his influential column last November by asserting that "the undisputed fact connecting Iraq's Saddam Hussein to the Sept. 11 attacks is this: Mohamed Atta, who died at the controls of the airliner-missile, flew from Florida to Prague to meet on April 8 (2001) ... with Ahmed al-Ani, the Iraqi consul."
Safire stuck to his guns in a subsequent column in March, attacking the growing chorus of those critics, including Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, who doubted the story.
However, the doubters were right, and the kindest thing to say is that Safire and others floating this non-story were had by those in the government eager to fuel tensions with Iraq.
The attempt to blame Sept. 11 on both a fanatic Muslim, Osama bin Laden, and the secular Hussein never made much sense. As Saudi Arabia's former chief of intelligence, Prince Turki bin Faisal, put it, Bin Laden viewed Hussein "as an apostate, an infidel or someone who is not worthy of being a fellow Muslim."
Moreover, the hijackers were not from Iraq, nor did the money trail lead to Baghdad. Instead, investigators found a cash highway emerging from the wealthy fundamentalists of Saudi Arabia, a nation that happened to have produced 15 of the hijackers and bin Laden himself. How annoying that the main achievement of our president's father -- President George H.W. Bush -- was the Gulf War, which saved Saudi royalty from Hussein's wrath.
To the elder Bush's everlasting embarrassment, Hussein survived in office longer than he did. Perhaps it remains for psychiatrists to best explain why his son has made ousting Hussein the centerpiece of his otherwise undefined foreign policy.
A case in point is today's meeting in Washington between the president and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who is to be pressured to somehow begin to make peace with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Pushing both sides hard for a Mideast truce is an admirable role for the world's only superpower, of course, but Bush's commitment to the process is transparently short-term: He wants to secure Saudi Arabia's support for his planned war on Iraq.
Saudi Arabia has a long history of betraying the interests of both Israel and the Palestinians, and peacemaking that aims at mollifying the Saudi royal family is doomed to failure. Rather, a just resolution acceptable to the two peoples who have been mutually exploited by the rest of the Arab world for the past 50 years is the key to stability in the region.
Instead, Bush has had it backward from his first days in office, when he ignored the painstaking peacemaking efforts of his predecessor, turning his attention to the region only after the tragedy of Sept. 11.
Now a popular "wartime" president, he is apparently dead set on launching another massive air war on a rogue nation -- a costly endeavor that, whether it hinders terrorism or not, could cinch his reelection and his place in the history books.
Clearly, Bush's preoccupation with Iraq has permitted the tail to wag the dog. Yet without the link to bin Laden's al-Qaida, there is little excuse for what would prove to be a very costly war, rejected by almost all of our allies as an irrational response to what remains of the Iraqi military threat.
Bush's foreign policy is based on a fairytale, the persistent if childish hope that all of our problems can be solved by one solid blow to the latest Evil Empire, now found in Baghdad. Someone needs to read the president a better bedtime story.