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This is why the decision to go to war is so onerous. The consequences, planned or unintended, are so profound that they defy enumerating, let alone comprehending.

The disappearance of 380 tons of high explosives from a former Iraqi military installation appears to be a result of the Bush administration's decision to topple Saddam Hussein. What is unclear is whether the United States could have done anything to prevent it once the invasion began.

This is a deadly serious revelation. These are explosives that can be used to arm missiles and set off nuclear weapons. The bomb that destroyed Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988 used less than one pound of the type of material missing from Iraq, The New York Times reported. The math is frightening: Three hundred eighty tons would be enough to take down 760,000 airplanes.

Whether the explosives disappeared before the war began -- either through theft or Saddam's decision to move them elsewhere -- or were stolen during the chaos that has descended on Iraq over the past 19 months, the fact is that they are unaccounted for, and possibly in the hands of terrorists who may use them against civilians or coalition forces.

The commander of the American unit that first came to the Iraqi military facility where the explosives were stored told the Times that his troops never searched the installation, but merely spent the night there on the way to Baghdad. What is known, according to the Times, is that the facility was unguarded and open to looters as recently as last Saturday.

Some reports suggest the material was missing by the time American troops arrived at the military facility. Vice President Cheney raised that possibility again this week in response to criticism from Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry. It is impossible to know where the truth lies, at least for the time being.

This incident may lead some Americans to the right conclusion for the wrong reason. Faulting this administration for not deploying enough manpower to stabilize Iraq and ensure civil order is a valid criticism, regardless of whether the United States could have prevented the theft of these explosives. Even some conservatives who supported the decision to go to war are shaking their heads at how the Bush administration mishandled the occupation. And much of the criticism involves the decision not to have deployed the several hundred thousand troops that former Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki said were needed to stabilize the country.

It's hard to believe that the decision to keep troop levels relatively low was not influenced by Bush's re-election plans. Indeed, imagine the uproar on the right if Bill Clinton or any other Democrat had led the country into a bloody mess like Iraq, with too few troops to do the job, only to have a huge stockpile of powerful explosives turn up missing -- even if it had occurred before the first troops set foot in Iraq. Purple-faced Republicans would be screaming to high heaven that the president had put American troops at risk to protect his political prospects. The silence now is as predictable as it is hypocritical.

Also suspicious is that it took so long for the disappearance of the explosives to be disclosed. Was the Bush administration unaware the material was missing, or did it just not want to talk about it? Neither is a helpful situation for an incumbent president just days before an election.

It's not especially good for his country, either.

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