Count our blessings, an act the eternally pessimistic American left usually shuns on the grounds that it might indicate we've made some headway in progress toward the good, the true and the beautiful.

            First, let's look back. This year was a pretty good year. Who can complain about a span of time in which both William Bennett and Rush Limbaugh, outed respectively as a compulsive gambler and a drug addict, were installed themselves in the public stocks amid the derision of the citizenry? Some say that they've both winched themselves out of the mud, with Bennett's sessions in Las Vegas and Limbaugh's steady diet of OxyContin already faded in the public mind. I don't think so. There's nothing so enjoyable as the plight of a professional moralizer caught in the wrong part of town.

            And again, who can complain about a year in which the New York Times tripped itself up so gloriously with . no, not the Jayson Blair affair, where the Times thumped its breast in contrition and self-abasement for minor, unimportant works of the imagination by its young black reporter. I'm talking about the far larger scandal of Judith Miller's extended series of alarmist articles about Saddam Hussein's nonexistent weapons of mass destruction. Here the Times has remained more or less silent about the expose of its star reporter, but Miller's shameless propagandizing, abetted by her editors, will stand as one of the most disgraceful displays of tendentious reporting in the history of the U.S. press, and I include in this category the Times' terrible performance in the Wen Ho Lee affair.

            For a vivid account of just how bad the Times has been for many, many years, I strongly recommend John L. Hess's vivid memoir "My Times, A Memoir of Dissent," published by Seven Stories Press. Hess, cranky, heterodox, cultured and irreverent, is the ideal type of what any member of our profession should be, but who is usually leeched out of the system in the dawn of their careers. He was a brilliant Paris correspondent for the Times in the '60s and early '70s, returned to New York and promptly wrote memorable exposes of the Metropolitan Museum (notably the incredible antics of its director Thomas Hoving) and of New York's nursing homes. Then, he and his wife Karen briefly took charge of the food and restaurant column and caused turmoil in that back-scratching sector.

            Hess really writes the Times's obituary as America's supposedly greatest paper, and there is nothing more savage and contrite than his account of what the New York Times did not report about the Vietnam War in the late 1960s. Every journalism student and reporter should have it in his or her knapsack.

            And, of course, 2003 was a year in which the governments, intelligence services and military bureaucracies of two countries, American and Britain, displayed themselves as brazen and incompetent liars as they maneuvered toward war on Iraq. What more could any radical ask for?

            So why did the United States want to invade Iraq in 2003 and finish off Saddam? There are as many rationales as there were murderers on Christie's Orient Express. In the end my mind goes back to something our friend the political scientist Doug Lummis wrote from his home in another outpost of the Empire, in Okinawa, Japan, at the time of the first onslaught on Iraq at the start of the Nineties.

            Iraq, Lummis wrote, had been in the Eighties, a model of an oil-producing country thrusting its way out of the Third World, with a good health system and an efficient bureaucracy cowed from corrupt practices by a brutal regime. The fundamental intent was to thrust Iraq back, deeper, ever deeper into Third World indigence.

            In the fall of 2003, I was in London and across a weekend enjoyed the hospitality of the first-class journalist Richard Gott, and also of his wife Vivienne. At one point our conversation turned to the question of motive, and I was interested to hear Gott make the same point as Lummis, only about the attack of 2003. I asked him why he thought this, and Gott recalled a visit he'd made to Baghdad in April 2003.

            This was a time when the natural and political inclination of most opponents of the impending war was to stress the fearful toll of the sanctions imposed from 1990 on. Gott had a rather different observation, in part, because of his experience in Latin America. Baghdad, he said, looked a lot more prosperous than Havana. "It was clear today," Gott wrote after his visit, "from the quantity of goods in the shops, and the heavy traffic jams in the urban motorways, that the sanctions menace has been effectively defeated. Iraq is awakening from a long and depressing sleep, and its economy is clearly beginning to function once more. No wonder it is in the firing line."

            Eyes other than Gott's no doubt observed the same signs of economic recovery. Iraq was rising from the ashes, and so it had to be thrust down once more. The only "recovery" permitted would be on Uncle Sam's terms. Or so Uncle Sam, in his arrogance, supposed.

            I've never liked the left's habit of announcing clamorously that we're on the brink of fascism, and that sometime in the next month or two the equivalent of Hitler's Brown Shirts will be marching down Main Street. There was a lot of that sort of talk around the time the Patriot Act was rushed through Congress. I was a bit more optimistic. I always thought that when the initial panic after the attacks on the Twin Towers subsided, a measure of sanity would seep back into the judicial system. And so it has come to pass. For sure, if another attack comes, we'll slide back again, but for now the erosion of the Bill of Rights has slowed.

            And 2004? Dean versus Bush . the mutual funds scandal . it promises to be a lot of fun.

            Alexander Cockburn is coeditor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at COPYRIGHT 2003 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.