ONE OF THE greatest mistakes in the history of American intelligence was the failure to predict the collapse of the Soviet Union. Various arms of the U.S. government were so invested in the idea of the burgeoning Soviet military threat -- because it served their own purposes -- that no one knew quite what to say when the U.S.S.R. simply cracked apart under its own weight.
A common reaction among Americans who traveled to Russia in the 1990s and witnessed its dilapidation all around them was a startled question: "This was the enemy we heard so much about?"
In the long run, it all turned out satisfactorily, at least for Americans, and without undue recriminations inside the intelligence agencies. No one, after all, got hurt.
Now comes Iraq, and what looks like the same syndrome. Bad intelligence, evidently, vastly overstated the threat of Iraq's biological and chemical weapons, and of its nuclear arms program.
But the Iraq case is worse, in two important ways. First of all, the bad intelligence was used to justify an actual shooting war. And, second, the conclusions about the Iraqi danger weren't supported by the actual information on hand. They fell somewhere on the spectrum that stretches from wishful thinking to exaggeration to the downright lie.
From within both the CIA and British MI6 have arisen accusations that the politicians took good intelligence and made sure it was cooked until it supported their position. Sour grapes, maybe? The failure to find any actual weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, 80 days after it fell, suggests otherwise.
A special intelligence unit was set up within the Defense Department before the war to sift through information and, reportedly, glean the most alarming kernels -- those, in particular, that conformed with the horror stories being passed along by Ahmad Chalabi, head of the Iraqi National Congress.
Those kernels soon began to pop -- into the speeches of Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, of Vice President Dick Cheney and of President Bush himself.
This has led to considerable anger in Great Britain, where Mr. Blair stands accused of misleading Parliament. There has been much less of a stir here in the United States -- perhaps because Americans, watching President Bush up close, understood that the weapons of mass destruction argument was a pretext all along.
That's not a shocking thought. Plenty of wars have been launched on the basis of a pretext.
To take just one example, from further back in U.S. history: This country went to war with Spain in 1898 because of the explosion that sank the USS Maine. The point wasn't really to avenge the Maine. The war was about extending American influence into Latin America, and -- as with Iraq today -- genuine dismay at the brutalities being suffered by the Cuban people. The war had its good motives and its not-so-good motives, its critics and advocates. The Maine merely got things going.
This is like Iraq, but with one big difference. The pretext was real. The Maine actually did sink (even if the cause was in dispute). The pretext was sitting on the bottom of Havana harbor, it wasn't a fantasy come to life along the banks of the Potomac.
In those days, people said, "Remember the Maine!" Today, people are starting to say, "Remember the weapons of mass destruction?"
Administration officials, from the president on down, have been explaining away the absence of germs and poisons even while hoping something might still turn up. They're now pointing to the abundant torture chambers, disfigured prisoners and mass graves as reason enough to overthrow Saddam Hussein. But this is no more credible than the original pretext.
The scale of the bloodshed and misery perpetrated by the Iraqi regime is surprising -- but not that surprising. Kuwaitis provided abundant evidence of Iraqi atrocities after the first Persian Gulf war. Human rights organizations have been documenting abuses in Iraq itself for years -- including, yes, the use of chemical weapons against Kurdish villagers.
Yet no one can argue persuasively that Mr. Bush committed American troops to war in a selfless desire to liberate the Iraqi people. It's a dishonest argument -- no matter how much Iraqis may eventually benefit from the regime change.
If this is what drives U.S. policy, Americans had better prepare for war not only in Iran and North Korea, but also in Cuba, Belarus, several Central Asian countries and half of Africa, as well.
No. This isn't going to happen because that's not what the war in Iraq was about. The relief of the Iraqi people is a happy byproduct of the conflict. But what lay behind the conflict has been shrouded by evasions and disingenuous pronouncements. The casualty here is American credibility -- and that matters.
It matters because other nations -- including America's allies -- have to believe they can trust Washington in the future. It matters because the White House should have confidence that it's receiving unvarnished intelligence, and not information that has been prettied up to conform to policy. And it matters because America's ability to understand the world around it depends on continuing to attract dedicated, clear-eyed men and women to the intelligence services -- people who will be confident, in turn, that their work will be respected.
Congress has now launched its own inquiry into the issue. Nothing should be allowed to hinder it.