CHICAGO - After U.S. authorities handed over power to an interim Iraqi government, President Bush boasted that the American effort has left the people of Iraq with better lives than they had under Saddam Hussein.
"This is a day of great hope for Iraqis," he announced. "Today, Iraqis live under a government that strives for justice, upholds the rule of law and defends the dignity of every citizen."
This is the last excuse for a war that didn't have to be. We didn't find stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction. We didn't uncover evidence that Saddam Hussein was involved with the 9/11 terrorist attacks. We didn't eliminate an imminent threat. But look! Iraqis are better off!
No doubt the Iraqis have gained something - though far less than they or the administration expected. And it isn't clear that the new regime will live up to Mr. Bush's lavishly optimistic description. But in any event, conservatives who think the government should stick to its enumerated powers will search the Constitution in vain for language authorizing the president to wage war for the benefit of people in Mesopotamia.
When the Founders included language empowering the government to "promote the general welfare," they were not speaking that generally. They meant the welfare of Americans and Americans alone. Mr. Bush, however, thinks he has just as much power to spend money and do good things in Baghdad as in Baltimore.
But what else can he say? Every other pretext for the invasion has disintegrated like a sandcastle in a thunderstorm. So he and his aides fall back on insisting that the Iraqi public and everyone else are better off with Mr. Hussein in jail instead of in power.
Even that isn't true. The nearly 900 American soldiers killed and some 4,700 wounded since the beginning of the war are worse off. The U.S. taxpayers who will have to foot the bill for the invasion and occupation have gotten poorer. The soldiers sent to Iraq are not all writing thank-you notes to the president. The uncounted Iraqis killed or wounded during the occupation might have preferred the status quo.
Saying it's good to be rid of Saddam Hussein is like saying it's good for me to get a big new house. If I have to arrange financing through Tony Soprano, it may not be so good. The question in Iraq that Mr. Bush stubbornly avoids is: Was the achievement worth the cost?
In the months before we attacked, the administration promised the achievement would be huge and the expense minimal. Besides reaping the adulation of the Iraqi people, we would cow rogue dictators, curb terrorism, promote democracy in the Middle East and pave the way for peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
Instead, North Korea and Iran are pushing forward with nuclear weapons programs. Terrorists are more numerous than sand fleas in Iraq, not to mention Saudi Arabia. Instead of offering a human rights model to Arab nations, we've given them pictures of naked men being abused by Americans. The Israeli-Palestinian love fest has yet to commence.
Our failure to reap these side benefits would be excusable if the war had served another constitutional mandate: providing for the common defense. But there was no significant threat from Saddam Hussein. We had prevented him from aggressing against anyone for more than a decade. We had forced him to accept extensive U.N. weapons inspections that bound him hand and foot. The administration had persuaded the United Nations to adopt a new system of "smart sanctions" to constrain him without punishing his people.
As it happens, the policy of containment worked better than anyone realized. As former U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix has noted, "The world had succeeded in disarming Iraq without knowing it."
A lot of people across the political spectrum have had second thoughts. Laments Michael Ignatieff, director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University: "Someone like me who supported the war on human rights grounds has nowhere to hide." Conservative commentator William F. Buckley Jr. says, "If I knew then what I know now about what kind of situation we would be in, I would have opposed the war." Most Americans now say the war was a mistake and didn't make us safer.
Yet even after a handover of power that had to be done surreptitiously to foil terrorists, Mr. Bush sees only success. He brings to mind the story Ronald Reagan used to tell about the boy who finds a huge pile of manure in his room and starts digging excitedly. "With all this manure," he says, "there's got to be a pony in here somewhere."
Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.