Posted: Jul 18, 2003 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- The Niger uranium flap has achieved the status of midsummer frenzy, a molehill become a mountain in the absence of competing news stories. It was but one bit of intelligence out of dozens about the threat posed by Saddam Hussein and, by any measure, hardly the most important.

Nonetheless, it was more than likely false, thus giving an opening to the Democrats, desperate for some handle to attack President Bush's huge advantage on the issue of national security. With weapons of mass destruction yet unfound, the Niger blunder opens the way to the broad implication that the president is a liar or a dissimulator who took the country to war under false pretenses.

How exactly does this line of reasoning work? The charge is that the president was looking for excuses to go to war with Saddam, and the weapons of mass destruction claims were just a pretense.

Aside from the fact that Saddam's possession of weapons of mass destruction was posited not just by President Bush but by just about every intelligence service on the planet (including those of countries that opposed war as the solution), one runs up against this logical conundrum: Why then did Bush want to go to war? For fun and recreation? Because of some cowboy compulsion?

The wilder critics have attempted wag-the-dog theories, war as a distraction from general political woes (Paul Krugman quotes the Robert De Niro character advising the president: ``You want to win this election, you better change the subject. You wanna change this subject, you better have a war.''); for others, war as a distraction from a lousy economy. This is ridiculous. Apart from everything else, war is a highly dangerous political enterprise. No one had any idea that Baghdad would fall in three weeks and with so few casualties. Just as no one had any idea how costly and bloody the post-victory occupation would be.

On the contrary, the war was a huge political gamble. There was no popular pressure to go to war. There was even less foreign pressure to go to war. Bush decided to stake his presidency on it nonetheless, knowing that if things went wrong -- and indeed they might still -- his political career was finished.

It is obvious he did so because he thought that, post-Sept. 11, it was vital to the security of the United States that Saddam be disarmed and deposed.

Under what analysis? That Iraq posed a clear and imminent danger, a claim now being discounted by the critics because of the absence thus far of weapons of mass destruction?

No. That was not the president's case. It was, on occasion, Tony Blair's, and that is why Blair is in such political trouble in Britain. But in Bush's first post-9/11 State of the Union address (January 2002), he framed Iraq as a part of a larger and more enduring problem, the overriding threat of our time: the conjunction of terrorism, terrorist states and weapons of mass destruction. And that unless something was done, we faced the prospect of an infinitely more catastrophic 9/11 in the future.

Later that year, in a speech to the U.N., he spoke of the danger from Iraq not as ``clear and present'' but ``grave and gathering,'' an obvious allusion to Churchill's ``gathering storm,'' the gradually accumulating threat that preceded the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939. And then nearer the war, in his 2003 State of the Union address, Bush plainly denied that the threat was imminent. ``Some have said we must not act until the threat is imminent.'' Bush was, on the contrary, calling for action precisely when the threat was not imminent because, ``If this threat is permitted to fully and suddenly emerge, all actions ... would come too late.''

The threat had not yet even fully emerged, Bush was asserting, but nonetheless it had to be faced because it would only get worse. Saddam was not going away. The sanctions were not going to restrain him. Even his death would be no reprieve, as his half-mad sons would take over. The argument was that Saddam had to be removed eventually, and that with Saddam relatively weakened, isolated and vulnerable, now would be more prudent and less costly than later.

He was right.

In fact, Bush's case was simply a more elaborate and formal restatement of Bill Clinton's argument in 1998 that, left unmolested, Saddam would ``go right on and do more to rebuild an arsenal of devastating destruction. And some day, some way, I guarantee you, he'll use the arsenal.''

That was true when Clinton said it. It was true when Bush said it. The difference is that Bush did something about it.