AUSTIN, Texas -- After every military engagement, the Pentagon conducts a review to discover what they did right, what they did wrong, what worked and what didn't. It is an admirable tradition and one that needs to be copied by the profession of journalism.

According to a poll conducted by The New York Times and CBS, 42 percent of Americans believe Saddam Hussein of Iraq was personally responsible for the attacks on the World Trade Center, something that has never even been claimed by the Bush administration. According to a poll conducted by ABC, 55 percent believes Saddam Hussein gives direct support to Al Qaeda, a claim that has been made by the administration but for which no evidence has ever been presented. President Bush has lately modified the claim to "Al Qaeda-type" organizations. This is how well journalism has done its job in the months leading up to this war. A disgraceful performance.

Ambrose Bierce, the 19th century cynic, once observed that war is God's way of teaching Americans geography. Going to war with the people in such a state, not of ignorance but of misinformation, is truly terrifying.

Among other things, these monster misimpressions have poisoned the public's debate, which is not now and has not been for many months whether to "do something" or "do nothing" about Saddam Hussein. The debate is over whether containment will work better than invasion, given the enormous cost, both monetarily and diplomatically, of invasion and then occupation.

Let me leap to say that containment, which is working to some extent, would not be working at all if President Bush had not been keeping relentless pressure on the Iraqi regime. But it is impossible to avoid the sickening conclusion that the Bush administration decided to invade months ago and has never been willing to consider containment. It is this unmistakable attitude that has poisoned U.S. relations with countries around the world.

Hans Blix reports that Iraq is "pro-actively" cooperating with the U.N. inspectors and that the inspections can be fully completed "not in years, nor weeks, but months."

After all this time, we are still left with the two questions: Why Iraq? And why now? One of the continuously changing rationales for war has been that Hussein had a nuclear weapons program, or was within a few years of having nuclear weapons. That is simply untrue.

Mohamed ElBaradei, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, told the U.N. Security Council that letters purportedly showing that Iraq tried to buy uranium from Niger were fabricated.

"There is no evidence of resumed nuclear activities," said ElBaradei. The much discussed high-strength aluminum tubes supposedly bought by Iraq for use as centrifuges have also been accounted for. The IAEA reports having found extensive records on the tubes, which were for 81 mm conventional rockets.

Another under-reported story was a speech by President Bush the Elder at Tufts University on Feb. 26, in which he said of France and Germany: "We have differences with European countries, and they have differences with us. I worked on those relationships, and I feel confident when all this calms down, when Iraq lives within the international law, you will see the United States back together as allies and friends with both Germany and France."

He cited his own experience with the late King Hussein of Jordan, who had sided against him in the first Gulf War: "The minute the war ended ... I was determined that we would get the relationship between Jordan and the United States back on track." Then, in the ineffable Poppy Bush manner, he stopped to heap praise on King Hussein. "I think there's a message in that for those who today say: ‘How can we ever put things together? How can we ever get talking when you have such acrimony and such bad feeling?' You've got to reach out to the other person. You've got to convince them that long-term friendship should trump short-term adversity."

He also reiterated his contention that if the United States had exceeded the U.N. mandate in 1990, the United States would never have been able to get Middle East peace negotiations started at the Madrid conference. "The coalition would have instantly shattered, and the political capital that we had gained, as result of our principled restraint, to jump-start the peace process would have been lost."

A final note on matters journalistic: At his press conference last week, President Bush broke a 43-year tradition by failing to call on Helen Thomas, now of the Hearst Syndicate, who has been asking questions at presidential press conferences since 1960. Thomas is openly critical of this administration, and particularly of this war.

Afraid to take a question from an 82-year-old woman? George W. Bush has no class. Equally disgusting was the White house press corps' failure to respond to the insult. What makes that bunch of smug chumps think it won't be done to any one of them? Bring back Poppy, syntax and all!

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