Opinion A Pause for Hindsight

Even though this page came down against the invasion of Iraq, we regret now that we didn't do more to challenge the president's assumptions.

Over the last few months, this page has repeatedly demanded that President Bush acknowledge the mistakes his administration made when it came to the war in Iraq, particularly its role in misleading the American people about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction and links with Al Qaeda. If we want Mr. Bush to be candid about his mistakes, we should be equally open about our own.

During the run-up to the war, The Times ran dozens of editorials on Iraq, and our insistence that any invasion be backed by "broad international support" became a kind of mantra. It was the administration's failure to get that kind of consensus that ultimately led us to oppose the war.

But we agreed with the president on one critical point: that Saddam Hussein was concealing a large weapons program that could pose a threat to the United States or its allies. We repeatedly urged the United Nations Security Council to join with Mr. Bush and force Iraq to disarm.

As we've noted in several editorials since the fall of Baghdad, we were wrong about the weapons. And we should have been more aggressive in helping our readers understand that there was always a possibility that no large stockpiles existed.

At the time, we believed that Saddam Hussein was hiding large quantities of chemical and biological weapons because we assumed that he would have behaved differently if he wasn't. If there were no weapons, we thought, Iraq would surely have cooperated fully with weapons inspectors to avoid the pain of years under an international embargo and, in the end, a war that it was certain to lose.

That was a reasonable theory, one almost universally accepted in Washington and widely credited by diplomats all around the world. But it was only a theory. American intelligence had not received any on-the-ground reports from Iraq since the Clinton administration resorted to punitive airstrikes in 1998 and the U.N. weapons inspectors were withdrawn. The weapons inspectors who returned in 2002 found Iraq's records far from transparent, and their job was never made easy. But they did not find any evidence of new weapons programs or stocks of prohibited old ones. When American intelligence agencies began providing them tips on where to look, they came up empty.

It may be that Saddam Hussein destroyed his stockpiles of banned weapons under the assumption that he could restart his program at a later date. His cat-and-mouse game with the weapons inspectors may have been the result of paranoia, or an attempt to flaunt his toughness before the Iraqi people. But we're not blaming ourselves for failing to understand the thought process of an unpredictable dictator. Even if we had been aware before the war of the total bankruptcy of the American intelligence estimates on Iraq, we could not have argued with any certainty that there were no chemical and biological weapons.

But we do fault ourselves for failing to deconstruct the W.M.D. issue with the kind of thoroughness we directed at the question of a link between Iraq and Al Qaeda, or even tax cuts in time of war. We did not listen carefully to the people who disagreed with us. Our certainty flowed from the fact that such an overwhelming majority of government officials, past and present, top intelligence officials and other experts were sure that the weapons were there. We had a groupthink of our own.

By the time the nation was on the brink of war, we did conclude that whatever the risk of Iraq's weaponry, it was outweighed by the damage that could be done by a pre-emptive strike against a Middle Eastern nation that was carried out in the face of wide international opposition. If we had known that there were probably no unconventional weapons, we would have argued earlier and harder that invading Iraq made no sense.

Saddam Hussein was indisputably a violent and vicious tyrant, but an unprovoked attack that antagonized the Muslim world and fractured the international community of peaceful nations was not the solution. There were, and are, equally brutal and potentially more dangerous dictators in power elsewhere. Saddam Hussein and his rotting army were not a threat even to the region, never mind to the United States.

Now that we are in Iraq, we must do everything possible to see that the country is stabilized before American forces are withdrawn. But that commitment should be based on honesty. Just as we cannot undo the invasion, we cannot pretend that it was a good idea - even if it had been well carried out.

Congress would never have given President Bush a blank check for military action if it had known that there was no real evidence that Iraq was likely to provide aid to terrorists or was capable of inflicting grave damage on our country or our allies. Many politicians who voted to authorize the war still refuse to admit that they made a mistake. But they did. And even though this page came down against the invasion, we regret now that we didn't do more to challenge the president's assumptions.