CHICAGO -- Before Jose Padilla was locked up on suspicion of plotting a "dirty bomb" attack on the United States, he lived in Egypt, hooked up with Osama bin Laden's confederates in Pakistan and Afghanistan and boarded a flight home in Switzerland.
So which country is implicated by his bloodcurdling activities? Why, Iraq, of course.
That was the thinking on The Wall Street Journal's editorial page, which blames Saddam Hussein for everything that it can't manage to pin on Bill Clinton.
After the news broke on Mr. Padilla, also known as Abdullah al Muhajir, the Journal trotted out a former Iraqi official who wrote, "The arrest of a `dirty bomb' suspect in Chicago has focused attention once again on al-Qaida. But it would be a mistake to ignore possible state links, especially with Saddam Hussein."
The author, Khidhir Hamza, recalled that when he was head of Iraq's nuclear program in the 1980s, a test was done of a dirty bomb.
All that was missing in this article was any evidence that Mr. Padilla had a connection with Iraq, that Iraq has stockpiled dirty bombs or that Mr. Hussein is planning to attack the United States.
Never mind. "Restricting the lookout for this source of terrorism to al-Qaida is taking the easy way out," warned Mr. Hamza.
Well, yes. It is taking the easy way out to go after the people who are trying to attack you rather than the people who are not. But somehow it makes more sense than doing the converse.
The impulse to use any scare as grounds to attack Iraq has been on display since Sept. 11.
The hawks immediately suspected Saddam Hussein, trumpeting reports that Mohammed Atta conferred with one of his henchmen in Prague last year.
That turned out to be a false lead. After an exhaustive investigation, the Los Angeles Times reported last month, "U.S. investigators no longer believe that suicide hijacker Mohammed Atta met with an Iraqi intelligence agent in Europe last year, eliminating the only known link between Saddam Hussein's government and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks."
Likewise, when anthrax-tainted letters turned up last fall, suspicions once again fell on Iraq. Now, the FBI has pretty much abandoned that notion as well -- concluding that the villain was most likely an American who has some scientific training and a grudge against the government.
You'd think the conspicuous lack of evidence tying Saddam Hussein to anti-American terrorism would argue against an invasion of Iraq. But the consensus in favor of a pre-emptive strike has reached near unanimity in Washington. Democratic as well as Republican leaders on Capitol Hill have endorsed such action, and President Bush leaves little doubt that he is planning to do whatever it takes to get rid of Mr. Hussein.
"I will not stand by as peril grows closer and closer," announced the president in a recent speech at West Point, in a clear reference to Iraq.
"If we wait for threats to fully materialize, we will have waited too long."
All this is a clever way of getting around a major inconvenience: Mr. Hussein's refusal to provoke us. Even though he has apparently been a mere spectator in the war between terrorists and the United States, Mr. Bush says we know he's a bad guy who wants weapons of mass destruction. So he has to be eliminated lest he ever acquire the means to attack us.
But there's no reason to think Mr. Hussein would attack us if he had such armaments. He could have used his chemical or biological weapons in 1991, when we were pounding his army to pieces. He didn't, because he knew we would wipe him and his regime off the face of the earth.
That stark prospect explains his reluctance to join forces with al-Qaida. He knows that if we uncover any direct connection between Baghdad and terrorist attacks against us, he'll be as defunct as the pharaohs.
So Mr. Hussein may be a chronic irritant, but he poses no danger that we can't contain.
The real danger would arise if we were to launch an invasion of Iraq -- which the Joint Chiefs of Staff have informed the president would require some 200,000 troops.
Worse, it would erase the one powerful reason Mr. Hussein has not to use any chemical, biological or nuclear weapons he may possess.
If he's going to be destroyed regardless of what he does, why wouldn't he do his worst?
Therein lies the genius of the hawks' plan for Iraq: It replaces a policy that has deterred Mr. Hussein from using weapons of mass destruction with an approach that virtually guarantees their use.
With solutions like that, who needs problems?
Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Tuesdays in The Sun.