On the third anniversary of the beginning of his Iraq catastrophe, President Bush yet again dealt in denial, but this time the carefully screened audience at the Cleveland City Club wasn’t buying it.

Perhaps most on target was an elderly gentleman who cited what he said were the three main reasons for going to war in Iraq — WMD, Iraq’s ties to the Sept. 11 terrorists and the alleged purchase of nuclear material from Niger — and then noted dryly that all three of these rationales turned out to be false.

“How do we restore confidence that Americans may have in their leaders and to be sure that the information they are getting now is correct?” he asked the president.

How indeed? “That’s a great question,” began Bush by way of dissembling. “First, just if I may correct a misperception. I don’t think we ever said — at least I know I didn’t say — that there was a direct connection between Sept. 11 and Saddam Hussein.”

Really? So when he said in his May 1, 2003, “Mission Accomplished” speech on the deck of the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln that “we have removed an ally of Al Qaeda,” he meant a different gang with the same name as the one blamed for the attack on the World Trade Center twin towers and Pentagon? It is his way of finessing the firm conclusion of the bipartisan Sept. 11 commission that Hussein was an opponent of Al Qaeda and never its ally. Yet that didn’t stop Bush from again on Monday insisting that “the central front on the war on terror is Iraq.”

Meanwhile, the old “central front,” woolly Afghanistan, is now all sewed up, Bush reassures us. “Twenty-five million people are now free, and Afghanistan is no longer a safe haven for the terrorists.” Apparently the president missed the director of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, Gen. Michael Maples, giving testimony to Congress a few weeks ago that Taliban resurgence now presents “a greater threat to the Afghan central government’s expansion of authority than at any point since late 2001.”

To be sure, occupied Iraq is useful to Al Qaeda and its ilk — as a recruiting poster. In this and myriad other ways, the United States military’s continued heavy-handed presence in Iraq strengthens the hands of extremists and demagogues who can appeal to latent Iraqi nationalism and Muslim pride. Yet we seem to have forgotten that terrorists don’t really need Iraq as “a safe haven for terrorists to plot new attacks against our nation,” as Bush put it — they are just as likely to be drawn from countries that are nominally our allies, such as the 15 hijackers recruited under the noses of the Bush family’s sheik friends in Saudi Arabia.

Finally, for old times’ sake, Bush trotted out his now hoary excuses for those missing Iraqi WMD he so trumped up to get us psyched for a “preemptive” war three years ago, again blaming the deception on everyone except himself. “Like you, I asked that very same question, ‘Where did we go wrong on intelligence?,’ ” he plaintively responded to his questioner. “The truth of the matter is that the whole world thought that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.”

Not so. Most of the world thought it best to wait for the U.N. inspectors, then on the ground in Iraq, to complete their work before answering that question. Those inspectors had found no evidence of WMD and this president knew full well that would probably be their final conclusion when he ordered the preemptive invasion. Yet he justified it then by referring to the 9/11 attack, warning, “We cannot wait for the final proof — the smoking gun — that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud.”

On Tuesday, the Associated Press reported that a treasure trove of translations of audio tapes of top-level Iraqi meetings involving Hussein, released at the request of U.S. Rep. Peter Hoekstra, the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, show that Iraq had destroyed its WMD program by 1992. Those tapes were obtained soon after the 2003 invasion, yet the Bush administration kept them secret while continuing to assert that Iraq had an active WMD program.

As opposed to ordinary people in this country and the world, Bush has access to the same detailed information that the Sept. 11 commission used to conclude that the terrorist acts of Sept. 11 and others conducted by Al Qaeda bore no relation to Iraq. It is hardly an advertisement for American democracy that he was able to operate before the war and as recently as this week as if the truth will never be allowed to hold him accountable — though not in Cleveland, which is something to cheer about.

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