LAST WEEK, a sliver of truth seeped out of the circle of mendacity that surrounds the Bush administration's war in Iraq.
"We've had no evidence that Saddam Hussein was involved with September the 11th," said President Bush.
Americans who have been drawing that connection because Bush and his folks have been encouraging it so persistently to advance, and now defend, the war in Iraq, might not have noticed the direct statement of truth on this issue. It was buried in the middle of a general story in this newspaper. Even The New York Times gave it little attention inside the newspaper, though its editorial page seized on the significance of the moment in an editorial headlined: "The Terrorism Link That Wasn't."
The president had timing on his side, of course. He made the statement while much of the East Coast was preoccupied with Hurricane Isabel and the West Coast was focused on the looney California recall election.
Bush was correcting a false impression created by his vice president, Richard Cheney (I cannot bring myself to call him Dick). Cheney had strongly hinted on last Sunday's NBC program, Meet The Press, that some evidence might exist connecting Saddam Hussein to 9/11.
But even the president would not go so far as to disassociate himself from the linkage between al-Qaida and the Saddam Hussein regime. "There's no question that Saddam Hussein had al-Qaida ties."
Truth is, Osama bin Laden hated Saddam Hussein.
So you get a sliver of truth, but never too much. There's a war going on in Iraq and Americans have to believe in it because their sons and daughters are being killed there. And Americans have just been asked to cough up $87 billion to keep operations going, mostly in Iraq, some in Afghanistan where the real war against al-Qaida is supposed to be happening.
Still, the president is getting a lot of credit these days for being so forthcoming. First for letting Americans know that the next year of the war will cost them $87 billion; now for acknowledging that no evidence exists to connect Hussein to the terrorist attacks.
The Bush administration gave Americans two main reasons for going to war in Iraq. One was Hussein's possession of weapons of mass destruction, even nuclear weapons, that posed an imminent threat to the security of the United States. The other was his support of terrorism and the strongly implied link between his support of terrorism and al-Qaida's attacks against the United States on Sept. 11, 2001.
The administration has since acknowledged that the nuclear threat was based on bogus information. In the six months since, the U.S.-led coalition's invasion and occupation of Iraq began, not a shred of reliable evidence of the existence of chemical or biological weapons has been found in Iraq. Iraq did not pose an imminent threat to the security of the people of the United States.
In his Sept. 7 address to the nation to say he would be asking Congress for $87 billion, Bush did not talk much of those weapons of mass destruction. He talked of "rolling back the terrorist threat to civilization, not on the fringes of its influence, but at the heart of its power."
Americans, he knows, did not allow him to send their children to war in Iraq to get rid of a tyrant who was horribly mistreating his people. It would take a force even more powerful than America's to invade every country where that is happening, some of them considered America's friends. It was not because Hussein gassed the Kurds and not because he gassed the Iranians - both while he was being supported by the United States. They did not go to war because Hussein was supporting terrorism against Israel. Nor did they go to war because they were willing to give their lives so Iraq could be a democracy.
No, they went to war in the belief that their own homeland was threatened by Hussein. Now he is gone, but they are still there, dying every week.
"Iraq is now the central front" in the war on terror, Bush said two Sundays ago. "Our strategy in Iraq has three objectives: destroying the terrorists, enlisting the support of other nations for a free Iraq and helping Iraqis assume responsibility for their own defense and their own future."
None of these is why Americans went to war in Iraq.
They certainly did not go to war there to help Iraqis assume responsibility for their own future. That was not the rallying cry in March.
As for enlisting the support of other nations, it probably would have been a better idea to wait for them to come along before going to war practically alone. Sooner or later, they would have joined in. If not, they might have helped squeeze the noose around Husssein so tight he would have been forced out by other means. What would the risk have been in giving them more time? More time for Hussein to build his nukes? More time for him to bond with bin Laden? Nonsense.
Now Iraq is the "central front" in the war on terror. Apart from Hussein loyalists, whom Bush appears to differentiate from terrorists, all manner of foreigners with grudges against America have been rushing into Iraq to have a go at the United States and anyone cooperating with the American-led coalition.
The president asserts that the American men and women in Iraq are making the ultimate sacrifice to make America safer. Congress will give him the $87 billion - of your grandchildren's money, considering the size of the deficit - to support them there. Later, don't be surprised when it's another $90 billion and on and on, while Americans are still dying there and the homeland is not safer. And Iraq still doesn't have democracy.
It's reminiscent of Vietnam. But Vietnam had a lot of rice, and Iraq has a lot of oil. That's the truth.