The best moment of political theater at the president's news conference this week came when that thespian carbuncle of bile, Helen Thomas, hung a question mark at the end of a diatribe. The "dean" of the White House press corps all but called President Bush a lying warmonger who invaded Iraq for no legitimate reason.
Thomas lost the exchange, but the sad truth is that her side has won the larger argument. Ever since the controversy over the "16 words" in Bush's 2003 State of the Union address - in which the president alleged that Iraq was seeking uranium from Africa - the administration has been gun-shy about defending its original decision to invade. That's understandable, given the consequences of that episode: Not only did it make the White House seem inept, it made former U.S. Ambassador Joe Wilson and his very important hair a permanent fixture of the media firmament.
It is now simply taken as a given inside this White House that having an argument about why we invaded Iraq is a political loser. So the president prefers to talk democracy, not WMD.
This might explain why the administration has been so blasé about declassifying about 50,000 boxes of captured Iraqi documents. We don't know what's in many of these boxes. But what has been released so far has been, at minimum, tantalizing, pointing to and illuminating ties between Hussein's regime and al-Qaida as well as other terrorist organizations, including Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines.
There are no smoking guns so far. And we probably won't find an Iraqi equivalent of the Zimmerman telegram - which exposed Germany's hostile intent before World War I - languishing in some government warehouse, like the Ark of the Covenant at the end of the first "Indiana Jones" movie.
But what these documents - as well as other after-action intelligence gathering - demonstrate is that given what he knew at the time, George W. Bush was right to invade Iraq. We now know that the CIA bureaucracy was simply wrong to insist that "secular" Iraq would never work with Islamist terrorist groups such as al-Qaida and Abu Sayyaf. We know that Iraq harbored and very likely supported Abdul Rahman Yasin, one of the suspected bomb makers involved in the first World Trade Center attack in 1993.
According to the Pentagon's definitive postmortem on the invasion, some of which was leaked to the New York Times, even many Iraqi generals were stunned to discover that Hussein didn't have WMD. Hussein practiced a strategy that one Republican Guard commander called "deterrence by doubt," in which he hoped to bluff the world into believing he had WMD in order to deter Iran and keep his rep as an Arab strongman with serious mojo.
And that's the point Thomas et al don't want to understand. For reasons that still baffle me, the WMD threat - never the sole reason to invade Iraq - not only became the only argument, it became a thoroughly legalistic one, as if foreign policy has rules of evidence and procedural due process. After 9/11, that kind of foreign policy by lawyers looked ridiculous, and rightly so.
The fact that Hussein turned out to be bluffing about WMD isn't a mark against Bush's decision. If you're a cop and a man pulls out a gun and points it at you, you're within your rights to shoot him, particularly if the man in question is a known criminal who's shot people before. If it turns out afterward that the gun wasn't loaded, that's not the cop's fault.
Hussein had a 30-year track record of pursuing WMD. He dealt with Islamic terrorists. The sanctions regime fell apart thanks to Iraqi bribery and 30 years of spineless U.N. accommodation.
In the 1990s, Hussein tried to kill a former U.S. president and tried to shoot down British and American planes enforcing the "no-fly" zone. The Clinton administration - not the George W. Bush administration - established "regime change" as our policy toward Iraq. In the years that followed, the Iraqi regime openly celebrated the 9/11 attack. And when we tried to get Hussein to come clean about a weapons program that we (and his own generals!) had every reason to believe existed, he played games. After 9/11, calling that bluff wasn't a "choice," it was an obligation.
One reason Bush is down in the polls is that he's giving the impression that he's trying to change the subject from "our mistaken invasion" to "building democracy in Iraq." Building democracy in Iraq is vital - and entirely consistent with the highest aspirations of liberal foreign policy. But he would serve himself and the county better if he simply explained that he's been right all along. Swatting Helen Thomas is a start, but it will take a lot more.