WASHINGTON — Things have changed in this town over the past few weeks. Slowly, the steady drip, drip, drip of facts and questions about Iraq has begun to sink into people's heads here. Standing in line at lunch or walking down the street, one can hear snippets of conversations that contain words like "Iraq" and "casualties" and "trouble."
Up until the past week or so, a second term for George W. Bush was considered by many to be a done deal. It still may be, but the degree of certainty has begun to wane, as it becomes clear that the issues around the Iraqi weapons of mass destruction are more complicated than first appeared. What did the administration really know and when did it know it?
The White House has shown obvious signs of unease and has tried to put an end to the debate several times in the past week with its usual heavy-handed approach. "Case closed" has become a kind of administration mantra. "The president has moved on," says White House spokesman Ari Fleischer.
Maybe he has, but that's a bit like walking off the field in the third inning with the lead and declaring a victory. The president doesn't get to declare an issue dead, particularly when that issue is still in the news and the news is not good.
Just last week the new head of military operations in the region finally admitted that the US troops there were in the midst of a guerrilla war in Iraq. The chemical and biological weapons everyone expected to find still haven't materialized. The Iraqi nuclear weapons program that the administration referenced more than once over the past year seems to be either completely nonexistent or so early in its development as to be largely insignificant. Meanwhile, every day brings a few more casualties.
That's a lot of problems. And all, in some sense, go back to how this president and his staff "connected the dots" of intelligence that the US had on Iraq.
Intelligence comes in bits and pieces, or dots that need to be connected in order to get the full picture. And as the record becomes clearer on what happened in Iraq, there are serious questions about whether the administration was using the right dots or selecting the dots it wanted to draw the picture it got.
Since United Nations weapons inspectors left Iraq in 1998, intelligence experts say there has been little in the way of new information on the country. The administration was forced to grab at what information it could and try to guess where Iraqi weapons programs were in terms of development and geography.
Even within the administration, the lack of hard information was troubling, leading to differences in opinion and approach at different agencies. Yet, when the president spoke about Iraq there was little caution in his voice. Mr. Bush's statements were clear and decisive, as they often are.
Up to now, the administration's response on allegations concerning the Iraqi nuclear program (that now-famous sentence in his State of the Union address) and the weapons of mass destruction, has been that the president did not lie to anyone. This is a smart White House move. People intrinsically trust Bush to be honest and straightforward. It may also have the added benefit of actually being true.
But even if the president didn't lie, the errors on Iraq may speak to a serious issue concerning his judgment. Bush tends to see the world in black and white - divided between good and bad, just people and "evildoers." This is often portrayed as a strength of his presidency, but it can also be a weakness.
Going into the war with Iraq, the president made it clear that Saddam Hussein was an evil man who needed to be removed from power. One can only wonder how much that view led him to see the meager strands of evidence the US had gathered on Iraq as proof of a threat far more sinister and far more immediate.
As the questions about Iraq have mounted, the president has tried to push concerns aside by saying the world is a better place, a safer place, since Hussein has been removed from power. Whether those words are actually true remains to be seen - we don't yet know what will rise out of the ashes in Iraq. But they are the words of a man with great conviction.
In this case, it is legitimate to ask whether that conviction got in the way of finding the truth in Iraq before the nation acted.