The one surprising aspect of the controversy surrounding Iraq’s “weapons of mass destruction” is not the failure to find them: Those in the know had known all along that they did not exist.  It is, rather, the Bush administration’s inept handling of a situation that should have been anticipated months ago, when the “bureaucratic” decision was initially made to opt for WMD’s as the casus belli.  Morality and common decency aside, the administration did not do well in following up those pre-war WMD stories with sufficiently convincing postwar justifications and rationalizations.  The haughtiness of its leading figures is irritating to America’s friends and foes alike and, thus, self-defeating even within the neocon calculus of what constitutes this country’s interest.

Goading the designated enemy into striking first or inventing justifications for preordained wars is nothing new.  It has been a time-honored tradition of democracies since the Athenian leadership of the Hellenic world turned into hegemony in the fifth century B.C.  The process calls for some creativity on the part of proactive minds.  It demands a mix of amoral cynicism and manipulative skill—the very qualities that have defined successful political operatives across the centuries.

Most of the time, it works well.  Everyone “remembered” the Maine when it mattered, even though the cause of her explosion remains uncertain 105 years later.  When the British stage-managed the sinking of the Lusitania on May 7, 1915, by ensuring that the Germans were informed of the illicit cargo of munitions that made her a legitimate military target, Churchill & Co. knew that the facts would not become known until long after the utility of the incident—the decisive shift of American public opinion in favor of entering the war—had been fully exploited.  With Pearl Harbor, the precise sequence of events remains in dispute, but FDR’s mendacity in the proceedings is beyond reasonable doubt.  The “genocides” in Bosnia and Kosovo did not happen, but the story behind Racak and Ram-bouillet did not have the capacity to in-flame public debate once those wars were safely over.

To assume, however, that the same sleight-of-hand could be applied to the missing WMD’s, after a propaganda blitz lasting more than a year, was either naive or arrogant.

Naiveté is not a natural Washingtonian trait, but it is at least conceivable that some members of President Bush’s team—his secretary of state, for example—actually believed that those weapons existed and needed to be eliminated.  Politicians can be wrong in making threat assessments and sincere in their delusions.  Anthony Eden overestimated the danger of Colonel Nasser in 1956.  The Soviets’ chronic (and ultimately self-defeating) exaggeration of the threat from the West was not just propaganda; Stalin’s paranoia came to be internalized by the members of the political elite.  Likewise, it is possible that some of the “evidence” concerning Saddam’s arsenal was used by the War Party in order to cajole the leading “dove” into making the Bush administration’s WMD case to the world.  If this is so, Mr. Powell’s only honorable course is to resign.  If not, Mr. Powell is guilty of having aided and abetted those who quietly despise him—and, worse still for a political operative, he is guilty of having done so at no profit to himself.

Unlike one or two innocents who may have been duped, the WMD spinmasters were not delusional.  They have known all along that no “evidence” would be found.  They may even have been tempted to consider planting some, but the difficulties are considerable.  No outright conspiracy is safe when a six-figure book contract beckons the potential whistle-blower, and the forensic tools of the skeptics were potentially fatal: Nobody wanted Hans Blix nixing the “find” in front of a hundred cameras.

A fallback position was needed.  From the architects of the war, we could have expected a degree of evasive humility and a shift to the positive “fruits” of the regime change.  Some media apologists for the administration have developed this very theme—notably Andrew Sullivan, who says that “the liberation of Iraq was a moral obligation under any circumstances.”  This view implies that there may have been less than meets the eye regarding those weapons, but the policy itself—how-ever justified—was essentially sound because it yielded the greatest happiness for the greatest numbers.

For the self-designated masters of the universe, however, any attempt at moral self-justification smacks of unmanly weak-ness.  Paul Wolfowitz’s Vanity Fair admission—that, for bureaucratic reasons, “we settled on one issue, weapons of mass destruction, because it was the one reason everyone could agree on”—has the refreshing quality of truthfulness.  Wolf-owitz’s debonair arrogance is less morally flawed than Sullivan’s sophistry; it is certainly preferable to Blair’s nauseating sanctimony.

At the level of pragmatic policymaking, however, the problem with the undersecretary of defense’s approach is that it is not rational: It does not maximize the power of his government or minimize its liabilities.  As a distinguished professor of international politics, Wolfowitz should realize that, by admitting that he and his colleagues had taken everyone for a ride, he ensures that the exercise cannot be repeated.

Thus, for instance, the reaction of Sir Max Hastings, former editor of London’s Daily Telegraph, the flagship of traditional Toryism.  “I was silly to trust America,” he now declares.  “[G]iven the behaviour of the US Administration, that case is in tatters . . . [A] heavy blow has been struck against our faith in American rhetoric and judgment.”

Let us assume you are a benevolent global hegemonist who wants to take out Iran next, by political subversion and isolation and—if need be—military action.  To tackle a large country of 60 million, with a well-trained military, an efficient civil service, and substantial oil-based revenues, you need a Blair or two to help you along.  It might also be useful to call on the U.N. Security Council, if you decide that the next exercise needs a veneer of international legitimacy.  It makes no sense to tell such allies point blank that they are suckers; it may awaken their sense of self-respect.  The neoconservatives may want to develop a kinder, gentler variety of world management soon—certainly before they start preparing for the next war to make the Middle East safe for democracy.