A war is a terrible thing to waste if the rationale for the war proves to be false.
For the Iraq war, a key premise trumpeted by the White House was that Saddam Hussein still had weapons of mass destruction. But 10 months later, the working assumption is that he didn't, and that the fallen dictator probably had only a capability to resume making such weapons. For many people, such as former weapons inspector David Kay, that's still enough to justify the war. But it's not enough to overcome tarnished credibility for both the United States and Britain.
Last week, both President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair were each forced to set up panels to find out why their respective intelligence services misjudged the existence of illegal weapons and to recommend changes in how intelligence is collected, analyzed, and used.
If these panels prove to be independent and have access to relevant information, that should add to the efforts to restore the credibility of the spy agencies. Without a renewed credibility in intelligence, any president will find it very difficult in the future to justify another preemptive war in the campaign on terror.
The fact that Mr. Bush wants the US panel to report its finding after the November election shows just how unwilling he is to be held accountable for selling the argument that illegal weapons existed.
But in this political accounting for the war, another equally strong premise needs to judged just as hard. Bush is also vulnerable for his domino theory that the ouster of Hussein and the creation of a representative government in Iraq would push reform in the Middle East, helping to bring democracy and to calm the region's fanatical, anti-Western Islam.
That vision, which was likely the war's underlying logic, received little attention before the war but deserves attention today - perhaps even an independent commission of its own.
Two months before he started the war in April 2003, the president told a conservative think tank: "A new regime in Iraq would serve as a dramatic and inspiring example of freedom for other nations of the region." Without an elected government in Baghdad yet, however, it's difficult to test this premise. And there remains a risk that Iraq could spiral down into civil war. In addition, any progress in Iraq will count for little among Arabs or defuse anti-Americanism unless the US also pushes an Israel-Palestinian peace deal.
But bolder voices of dissent against autocratic rulers are being heard. The leading cleric in Saudi Arabia has denounced any sort of terrorism. Hundreds of Syrian intellectuals have asked for an end to martial law. Iranian reformers are confronting ruling clerics.
The war was designed to shake Arabs out of their centuries-long malaise and slow pace toward modernization, thus ending their historical resentment at being overtaken by the West. That's a tall order. Either Congress, a commission, or the presidential campaign needs to review if that hope is being fulfilled, and if enough is being done to achieve it by supporting Arab moderates.
Leaders of the 22 Arab nations were put on notice before the war by top Arab academics that they must deal with the region's three deficits: lack of political freedom, lack of women's empowerment, and lack of literacy. It's that status quo which produces people eager to kill Americans and which the war was meant to end.
But the occupation of Iraq might have also stirred up more anti-American resentment. The Bush administration must be told that it should more aggressively engage the Middle East. As Bush said in one speech: "This is a struggle of ideas and this is an area where America must excel."
Signs that Bush's postwar scheme is heading in the right direction came last week from a prominent European critic of the war. German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer said Europe and the US must now pool their resources to save the region from a crisis of modernization that's been fueling terrorism in the region. "We have to win the peace together," he said.
Implanting ideas such as representative government and civil liberties is more effective in the long run against terrorism than chasing down illegal weapons. The question now is whether the Bush administration's core premise for the war is tilting Arabs and Iranians toward reform.
It's not too soon to start a public reckoning on a war that was waged to achieve this historic turning point.