ON JAN. 17, 2001, in the very last days of the Clinton administration, National Security Adviser Samuel R. Berger called the terrorism network of Osama bin Laden "one of the most serious threats the next administration will face."
Mr. Berger, addressing a conference held by the U.S. Institute for Peace, said: "I believe the next administration will need ... to take a systematic, sustained, long-term effort to render this international network a far lesser threat to the United States. More people have been killed by bin Laden and his network - more Americans - than all of the wars since Vietnam."
Later in the day, Condoleezza Rice, who was to hold the national security job under George W. Bush, spoke to the same conference. She, however, preferred to dwell on Saddam Hussein, whom she called "a tremendous threat." She said the new administration was determined to "put continuous pressure" on the Iraqi dictator.
As Ms. Rice testifies today before the 9/11 commission, it's worth remembering that small but emblematic moment. The Bush White House, from the beginning, was all but fixated on Mr. Hussein, even if it meant that al-Qaida, in spite of all the evidence, would have to play second fiddle. This was terribly misguided - and it just might help explain the administration's subsequent behavior.
Preparedness and responsibility in regard to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, are undeniably important questions, and the commission's eventual report will be of vital interest. But a more pressing question at the moment is this: How did the United States get where it is today? How did it go from passenger planes crashing into buildings in New York and Washington to warplanes shooting up mosques in Fallujah, Iraq?
It's fair to say that al-Qaida only briefly caught the attention of the Bush White House - belatedly, in the fall of 2001. American forces invaded Afghanistan and overthrew the Taliban in its pursuit. But the follow-up was badly botched - and within less than a year Washington was again beguiled by Mr. Hussein.
It's also fair to say that the administration's intense focus on Mr. Hussein blinded it to both the absence of forbidden weapons under his regime and the political realities that would emerge in Iraq once the tyrant was gone. Today, U.S. soldiers and Marines are fighting an uprising in the very country they liberated. And all the while, al-Qaida still eludes retribution in the mountains of Afghanistan.
It's all of a piece. Mr. Hussein so dominated the agenda that at times he was the agenda. All else was neglected.
A computer search of newspaper and magazine articles, and television news show and press conference transcripts, turns up one occasion when Ms. Rice mentioned al-Qaida before Sept. 11. It was when she declared that Russia poses as great a threat to world peace as does al-Qaida. That's interesting, considering that Russia is the one country in the world that was alarmed from the beginning about Osama bin Laden.
Our question for Ms. Rice is one that goes beyond the scope of the 9/11 commission. It's this: What will be the final cost to the United States of President Bush's obsession with Saddam Hussein?