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EVEN IN IRAQ, WINNING IS EVERYTHING

I know the defining image of victory over Iraq will forever be the flight-suited president landing on the deck of the Abraham Lincoln. Nevertheless, I have been carrying around a far less telegenic postscript to the conflict.

What haunts me is an offhand remark of a congressional aide in a New Yorker piece about missing weapons of mass destruction. The man said that he didn't think their absence would "sway U.S. public opinion much." After all, he said, "Everyone loves to be on the winning side."

I can't let go of this, because I'm afraid he's right. I don't think the question is whether we'll find such weapons, or how many or how lethal. The question is whether it matters.

Last week a CBS/New York Times poll showed that almost two-thirds of Americans know we haven't yet turned up a cache of biological or chemical weapons. Nearly half believe the White House overestimated their existence, and two-thirds of those believe the administration did so deliberately.

But here's the kicker: The majority of Americans believe that even if we never find the tons of lethal stuff we were told existed, it's OK. The war will have been worth it. It doesn't matter why we dunnit as long as we wunnit.

Is it the pleasure at seeing Saddam toppled, which I share? Is it the unearthing of mass graves? Or is it that everyone loves to be on the winning side?

To raise questions about the original justification for invading Iraq is, I am well aware, to be as welcome as the skunk at the victory party. To hold people to their word is like being a grammarian trying to edit hip-hop lyrics. But what did we say our reason for war was? Wasn't it the Iraqi threat?

In October, Condoleezza Rice warned, "We don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud." In January, the president's State of the Union address talked about tons of munitions, thousands of liters of anthrax and botulinum toxin. In April, Ari Fleischer described weapons of mass destruction: "That is what this war was about."

Well, the imminent nuclear alarm was something of a scam. And now, the U.S. search team is getting ready to leave Iraq without having found a smoking gun or solid evidence of WMDs.

We're told alternately that they were destroyed or deterred or hidden or smuggled to Syria. That may be so. But for the moment, it's hard to find what we were preventing or pre-empting in this preventive, pre-emptive war.

And while we are on the subject of slippage, in his speech at sea, Bush made yet another connection between the twin towers and the regime change: "The battle of Iraq is one victory in a war on terror that began on September the 11th, 2001."

Where was the reminder that there is still, no matter how many times it's said and no matter how many people believe it, no verified link between the hijackers and the Iraqis?

Everyone wants to be on the winning side. To hold the winner to some standard of truth has come to seem quixotic. It's as impolite as remembering that Al Gore won the popular vote. It's as quirky as demanding footnotes on myths. I am by no means sorry to see the end -- presumably -- of Saddam Hussein. But does success mean never questioning how you were conned into conflict?

We have become tolerant, even appreciative, of spin skill. When this White House issued updated excuses for the flight-suit photo-op, most criticism went to its critics. But when is the spin so fast that it melts into lies?

I'm not much for ranting, but I have a lifetime habit of journalism. The newspaper, they say, is the first draft of history. They also say that the winners get to write history. There's inevitably a conflict between the reporter and the mythmaker.

For the past week, my profession has been in an uproar over Jayson Blair, the young New York Times staffer who fabricated stories out of plagiarism, imagination and lies. The fury comes from those of us who spend long nights on the phone with editors, fact-checking and second-sourcing, and sometimes sweating out corrections.

But what is the price to be paid by the politicians who cut and paste the truth? Who is there to demand a correction for the sales pitch for war?

The president landed safely at sea, and his approval ratings float in untroubled waters. Everybody loves to be on the winning side.

Washington Post Writers Group

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