There is a smoking gun.

Unfortunately–and to the disgrace of a basically decent man–it is in the hands of Colin Powell, who finds himself touting the flimsy, exaggerated and often phony evidence of alleged links between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda.

From the beginning, the 9/11 attacks that horrified the world have been cynically exploited by this Administration as a golden opportunity to settle an old Bush family score with Hussein. Even as we went justifiably to war against the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, the White House kept inexplicably hinting that Iraq would be next. But why? After all, Iraq’s arsenal, eviscerated by war, inspections and bombing raids, was not a pressing threat.

One answer is that Hussein, hunkered down in Baghdad, was a handy stand-in for Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, both of whom have not been brought to account as promised by George W. Bush. This was especially convenient for a powerful clique of White House “chicken hawks”–so called because they are quick to support war but managed to avoid service themselves–who were eager to dust off a decade-old plan to seize Iraq as the first step in redrawing the map of the Middle East and, incidentally, gaining control of its oil.

In normal times, the selling of this imperial fantasy to a properly skeptical public, both at home and abroad, would have been impossible. But if Hussein could be linked to the mass murderers of 9/11? Piece of cake. That is why the good soldier Powell in his United Nations speech labored gamely to establish such a connection.

The main evidence presented by the secretary of State was a satellite photo of a forlorn outpost, allegedly linked to Hussein and Al Qaeda and which Powell claims is in the business of producing chemical weapons. However, the camp is outside the area controlled by Hussein and is in the northern Kurdish region protected by US and British warplanes. It is run by the Islamic fundamentalist group Ansar al-Islam, which has a history of opposing both the secular Hussein and his equally secular rivals in the dominant Kurdish group, one of whose leaders was assassinated Monday.

Later it was revealed that the United States had had this camp under surveillance for months and could have taken it out on one of many recent bombing runs.

Over the weekend, twenty foreign reporters finally got to visit the camp and found a dilapidated collection of shacks without indoor plumbing or the electrical capacity to produce the weapons in question.

A further embarrassment was another bit of intelligence touted by Powell, a British report that Powell referred to as a “fine paper…which describes in exquisite detail Iraqi deception activities.” The report, grammar and spelling errors intact, turned out to be largely plagiarized from a graduate student paper, grabbed off the Internet from an Israeli publication, that relied on 12-year-old data. Unfortunately, unlike Scotch, intelligence does not age well. Nevertheless, there were the dregs of old dissertations and magazine articles, recycled and served up in a report cobbled together by British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s press officer, just before Blair’s meeting with Bush last month.

There was nothing better to report in regard to an Al Qaeda-Iraq connection because England’s vaunted spy agencies would not confirm the falsehoods that Blair and Bush wanted to hear.

Like their professional counterparts in the United States, British intelligence agencies don’t believe there is an Iraq-Al Qaeda connection–a rather inconvenient fact revealed by the British Broadcasting Corp. on the eve of Blair’s visit. The BBC had obtained a top-level report from British intelligence that stated flatly that there were no current ties between Iraq and Al Qaeda.

“The classified document…said there had been contact between the two in the past, but it assessed that any fledgling relationship foundered due to mistrust and incompatible ideologies,” reported London’s Independent newspaper.

This last is the rub. Hussein, himself evil in so many ways, is the secular apostate to the Islamic fundamentalist nuts that are behind our terror fears; that is precisely why the United States backed Iraq, nasty weapons and all, in its devastating war with fundamentalist Iran. This is all further evidence that the increasingly frenetic and discredited argument for preemptive war against Iraq is not based on a coherent policy.

Depressing as it is to acknowledge, it now seems clear we are witnessing the tantrum of a woefully untutored and inexperienced President whose willfulness rises in direct proportion to his inability to comprehend a world too complex for his grasp.