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If it's three strikes you're out of the old ball game, then last week's Iraq Survey Group report, together with the earlier findings of the 9/11 Commission, conclusively expose the Bush administration's rationale for invading Iraq why we did, when we did and how we did as a series of swings and misses.

Strike one: The 9/11 Commission said there was no link between Iraq and Sept. 11 and "no collaborative operational relationship" between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda.

Strike two: The Iraq Survey Group reported that there were no weapons of mass destruction and there had not been for several years.

Strike three: Most interestingly, the Iraq Survey Group, while acknowledging that Saddam maintained aspirations, assessed that Iraq was less capable of building weapons of mass destruction in 2003 than it was in 1998, when U.N. inspectors were kicked out and the U.S. retaliated with the Desert Fox strikes at Iraq's weapons infrastructure.

In other words, the combination of sanctions (admittedly badly administered), inspections and limited military action employed between 1991 and 2003 actually worked. Saddam was not a grave and gathering threat, but a regional problem who was effectively contained and in decline.

Nonetheless, the president continues to argue that, because of 9/11, containment was no longer an option. We couldn't take a chance. Available intelligence suggested he had weapons and we had no choice but to invade. Given Saddam's refusal over 12 years to cooperate with the United Nations and the fact that he had successfully skimmed $11 billion off the top of the Oil-for-Food Program, the president may be right about the ultimate need to overthrow Saddam by force. But aspirations without weapons, to paraphrase David Kay, does not equate to an imminent threat.

While it was correct after Sept. 11 to refocus on the nuclear proliferation threat posed by Iraq, time was actually on our side. Although Iraqi sanctions were becoming increasingly unsustainable, the Bush administration largely took care of that problem when it returned to the United Nations in the fall of 2002, shored up international resolve through a unanimous vote in the U.N. Security Council, got inspectors back into Iraq and regained leverage that could have been used to tighten controls on Saddam.

For the administration's neo- and genuine conservatives who held little regard for international institutions, particularly the United Nations, the return of inspectors was problematic= Vice President Dick Cheney and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz came into office determined to finish the job they started – and botched – in 1991, when Saddam first began playing fast and loose with promises to the United Nations. They were not prepared to take "no weapons" as an answer. They didn't have to.

With a Security Council veto, there was no way that Saddam could be let out of his box without the agreement of the United States. As a senior Clinton administration official once admitted privately, Saddam was never going to be declared in compliance with his disarmament obligations. Thus, the United States had the power to perpetuate sanctions until Saddam was removed from power – perhaps through a coup while he was distracted writing the great Iraqi novel.

Containing Saddam was not politically popular, particularly in the region. There was genuine international concern about the plight of the Iraqi people, who were bearing the burden of sanctions far more than Saddam and his cronies. While Iraq will undoubtedly be better off with Saddam out of power in the long term, the initial gratitude that the Iraqis felt for the U.S.-led invasion has long since evaporated with the U.S.-dominated occupation. In fact, if Saddam were able in some way to appear on the ballot in January, he would likely garner enough votes to be a political embarrassment if not a political problem, which is why the United States is pressing the interim Iraqi government to move forward with legal proceedings that will certainly ultimately disqualify him from elected office.

It is possible that at the end of a more patient and prudent course, the United States would still have invaded. With inspectors back on the ground, the United States would have restored its best course of intelligence about what was happening in the country. A better understanding of the decrepit state of Iraq's infrastructure could at least have yielded a better understanding of the scope of reconstruction required after an overthrow. More planning could have been done to prevent the chaos that followed the invasion. And, of course, more time would have yielded greater international involvement and support.

The Bush administration pretends that only the objective matters – eliminating the long-term threat posed by Saddam Hussein. The rest is detail. But in the fine print is the reality that Iraq is now a haven for terrorists. Iraq is now a recruiting tool and training ground for the next generation of militants who will threaten the United States for decades to come.

P.J. Crowley is a senior fellow and director of national defense and homeland security at the Center for American Progress. He is a retired Air Force colonel and served as a special assistant for national security affairs to President Clinton.

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