AUSTIN, Texas -- "We ought to be beating our chests every day. We ought to look in a mirror and be proud, and stick out our chests and suck in our bellies, and say, 'Damn, we're Americans!'" -- Jay Garner, retired general and the man in charge of the American occupation of Iraq.

Thus it is with a sense of profound relief that one hears the news that Garner is about to be replaced by a civilian with nation-building experience. I realize we have all been too busy with the Laci Peterson affair to notice that we're still sitting on a powder keg in Iraq, but there it is. In case you missed it, a million Iraqi Shiites made pilgrimage to Karbala, screaming, "No to America!"

Funny how media attention slips just at the diciest moments. I doubt the United States was in this much danger at any point during the actual war. Whether this endeavor in Iraq will turn out to be worth the doing is now at a critical point, and the media have decided it's no longer a story. Boy, are we not being served well by American journalism.

Anent the current difficulties, Newsweek's May 12 report on Donald Rumsfeld's favorite Iraqi, Ahmad Chalabi, leaves one with the strong impression we should not be putting all our eggs in that particular basket.

But the weirdest media reaction of all is to the ongoing non-appearance of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. More and more stories quoting ever-unnamed administration officials appear saying the administration would be "amazed if we found weapons-grade plutonium or uranium" and that finding large volumes of chemical or biological material is "unlikely."

Look, if there are no WMDs in Iraq, it means either our government lied us to us in order to get us into an unnecessary war or the government itself was disastrously misinformed by an incompetent intelligence apparatus. In either case, it's a terribly serious situation.

What I cannot believe is that respected journalists, most notably Tom Friedman, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, would simply dismiss the nonexistent WMDs as though it made no difference. Of course it matters if our government lies to us.

Why do you think people were so angry at Lyndon Johnson over the Gulf of Tonkin? At Richard Nixon over the "secret war" in Cambodia? Even at Bill Clinton over the less-cosmic matter of whether he had sex with "that woman." If it makes no difference whether the government lied, why is Friedman a journalist? Why does journalism exist at all?

Nonexistent WMDs also present us with a huge international credibility problem, particularly since the Bush administration now feels entitled to "punish" those countries that did not join the "coalition of willing," as we so preciously called those who caved in to our threats to cut off foreign aid.

Come on, think about this. The Bush administration apparently feels entitled to take actions punishing close old friends, including Mexico and Canada -- not to mention the Europeans -- for not siding with us in a war we may have lied about? This is not going to sit well with the rest of the world. Sy Hersh's reportage in the current New Yorker should be read carefully.

The Friedman camp's reasoning on "lies don't matter" is that Saddam Hussein was such a miserable bastard that taking him out was worthy in and of itself. As a human rights supporter all these years, I made that argument, too. I even made it when the Reagan administration was giving Saddam WMDs.

But that was not the case made by President Bush. He said Saddam Hussein was a clear and present danger who posed an imminent threat to the United States because he had chemical and biological weapons he was prepared to hand over to terrorists at any moment.

The administration detailed those weapons with excruciating precision: 5,000 gallons of anthrax, several tons of VX nerve gas, between 100 and 500 tons of other toxins including botulinin, mustard gas, ricin and Sarin, 15 to 20 Scud missiles, drones fitted with poison sprays and mobile chemical laboratories.

The reason Bush could not make the human rights case against Saddam Hussein (as Tony Blair did) is because we're still supplying other monsters with weaponry. (Algeria, anyone?) John Quincy Adams said, "We go not abroad in search of monsters to destroy." We shouldn't help create them, either.

Maybe we can learn that much from Saddam Hussein.

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