Nothing irked the Bush administration more than the cat-and-mouse game Saddam Hussein played with United Nations weapons inspectors for 12 years in Iraq. But now that troops have toppled Hussein, allied military teams searching for evidence of illegal biological, chemical or nuclear weapons aren't having much better luck than the hapless U.N. sleuths.
Clearly getting antsy, the administration has tripled the number of scientists and engineers searching for weapons to about 1,500 -- and, incidentally, begun to lower expectations about what it may, or may not, discover in coming weeks and months.
Many experts still believe the allies will discover huge stores of the prohibited chemical and biological weapons Hussein's regime admitted to having once possessed but claimed to have destroyed after the 1991 Persian Gulf War. If they don't, the U.S. will face an embarrassing credibility gap.
President Bush offered shifting explanations for the Iraq war, but his most persuasive argument was that Hussein had to be stopped before he could use the weapons of mass destruction he was presumed to have or restart the nuclear arms program his regime claimed to have abandoned.
The fear Bush exploited was that the Iraqi tyrant was reckless enough to launch germs or nukes on missiles, or funnel them to a terrorist organization such as Al Qaeda. Left unchecked, the argument went, a nuclear-armed Hussein would be able to realize his dream of dominating the Persian Gulf.
Certainly Iraq was expert at hiding weaponry, and anyone who suggests that the mere days since Baghdad's fall is time enough for snoops to unearth something are guilty of impatience, at best.
Yet on Thursday, by raising the possibility that weapons of mass destruction may have been destroyed before or during the invasion, Bush only made the skeptics' eyebrows wiggle faster.
If that indeed happened, it should be easy for the administration to do what Hussein could not or would not do despite multiple U.N. resolutions: offer evidence of where and how he destroyed his weapons. Even if Hussein loyalists managed to smuggle deadly agents out of Iraq to other states or to terrorist groups, thorough interrogation of captured operatives should turn up some evidence.
If, conversely, inspectors discover that Iraq had less weaponry than the U.S. contended, the Bush administration either exaggerated the threat or American intelligence services failed.
"We were not lying," one administration official told ABC News on Friday. "But it was just a matter of emphasis." No, it wasn't. Iraq's possession of weapons of mass destruction is central to the legitimacy of the war.
If it turns out that the administration did mislead the world, the only way to mitigate long-term damage to U.S. credibility is to come clean. Fast.