Now that the war has been won, is it permissible to suggest that our emperor has no clothes? I'm not referring to his abysmal stewardship of the economy, but rather to the fig-leaf war he donned to cover up his glaring domestic failures.
President Bush went to war with Hitler's Germany and found another Afghanistan instead. After comparing the threat of Saddam to that of the Führer, it was odd to find upon our arrival a tottering regime squatting on a demoralized Third World populace.
Now the pressure is on for Bush to find or plant those alleged weapons of mass destruction fast or stand exposed as a bullying fraud.
Of course, our vaunted intelligence forces knew well from our overhead flights and the reports of U.N. inspectors freely surveying the country that Iraq had been reduced by two decades of wars, sanctions and arms inspections to a paper tiger, but that didn't keep the current administration from depicting Baghdad as a seat of evil so powerful it might soon block the very sun from shining.
And while Emperor Bush piled on the fire-and-brimstone rhetoric, his bespectacled vizier for defense presented a mad-hatter laundry list of Iraq's alleged weapons collection, as long and specific as it was phony and circumstantial.
Secretary of State Colin Powell's now infamous speech to the U.N. Security Council employed "intelligence" cribbed from a graduate student's thesis, documents later acknowledged as fakes and a defector's affirmation of the existence of chemical weapons while excluding his admission that they had subsequently been destroyed.
Having taken over the country, we now know with a great deal of certainty that if chemical or biological weapons were extant there, they were not deployed within the Iraqi military in a manner that threatened the United States or anyone else.
Likewise, Bush's fear-mongering about Iraq's alleged nuclear weapons program has proved baseless. There was no reason to hurriedly yank the U.N. inspectors out of Iraq.
Even Bush's only real ally outside of Washington, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, is worried that the fearsome weapons will not turn up -- or that a skeptical world will believe they were planted as an afterthought. "Some sort of objective verification" of weapons finds would be a "good idea," he said last week.
However, the refusal of the United States to permit the return of U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix and his team to continue their work is damning evidence of our fear that the weapons simply do not exist, at least in any usable quantity or form. It also raises the suspicion that Iraqi scientists now held incommunicado in U.S. captivity will be squeezed until they tell us what we want to hear. Whatever happened to the prewar demand that those same scientists be given the freedom to tell their story in a nonintimidating environment?
Bush may fear the truth because the still-AWOL weapons are a potential tar baby for this administration. Undoubtedly the United States will find mixed-used chemical precursors for weapons, as was claimed only this week, but that is a far cry from being an "imminent threat."
As Joseph Cirincione, a top weapons expert at the Carnegie Endowment, put it, the purported existence of those weapons "was the core reason for going to war with Iraq and the reason we had to go now. If we don't find fairly large stockpiles of these weapons, in quantities large enough to pose a strategic threat to the United States, the president's credibility will be seriously undermined and the legitimacy of the war repudiated."
That concern is largely absent in the U.S. media, where "liberation" is now a code word that smoothes over any irritating questions one may ask when a Christian superpower invades the heart of the Muslim world. Its partner phrase, "the building of democracy," is also all the rage, as if real democracy was something you could create with Legos or SimCity software.
At this point, though, we can only hope it will all turn out for the best, and that a retired U.S. general will figure out how to use the country's natural resources to end poverty, build excellent schools and provide crime-free streets and an electoral system where positions of power don't go to the highest bidder. Then he can come back and apply this genius at home, where we've got plenty of unwelcome violence, poverty and on-the-take politicians.
However, in the unlikely case this fantasy comes true, albeit at an untold price in money, lives and human suffering, it should be remembered that this was not the justification for war given to the American people.
And, in a more sober mood, one must still ask the embarrassing yet essential question: Did our president knowingly deceive us in his rush to war?
If he did, and we are truly concerned about our own democracy, we would have to acknowledge that such an egregious abuse of power rises to the status of an impeachable offense.