On Thursday, an estimated $40 million worth of inaugural pomp and circumstance will only temporarily triumph over an incalculable record of deceit and error.

Of course, some might say it’s tacky to rain on the President’s parade, but two crucial news stories compel it.

First came the report, confirmed by the White House, that the fruitless search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq had officially but secretly ended shortly before Christmas without, of course, any sign of the much discussed weapons that were such a critical justification for the war in the first place. This was followed by the astounding claim by the President that his narrow election victory in November absolved him of accountability for both the false rationales and outright lies used to justify the invasion, and the disastrous occupation that followed.

“Well, we had an accountability moment, and that’s called the 2004 elections,” Bush told the Washington Post in an interview published Friday. “And the American people listened to different assessments made about what was taking place in Iraq, and they looked at the two candidates, and chose me.”

Actually, the election provided no such moment of accountability because both major-party candidates had supported the war. John Kerry had voted to authorize the use of force against Iraq–and then inexplicably said on the campaign trail that he would have voted the same way even after learning that Congress and the American public had been deceived on the war’s justification. The Democratic Party nominee even endorsed larger troop commitments to occupy a country where every Western soldier on the ground fuels nationalist and religious rage.

And although it is true that Bush secured a (very slim) majority of the popular vote, it is a portent of how history will judge him that the days ahead of his inauguration have been soured by a string of critical statements about his Iraq policy from some of the biggest Iraq hands in the Republican ranks.

Brent Scowcroft, the retired lieutenant general who was national security advisor to the President’s father during the first Iraq war, warned ominously that the upcoming Iraqi national elections “won’t be a promising transformation, and it has great potential for deepening the conflict. We may be seeing incipient civil war at this time.”

Even the Bush family’s consigliore is concerned enough to speak out publicly. James A. Baker III, the former secretary of State who has been working at Bush’s behest to win international debt relief for conquered Iraq, is talking publicly about the need for a phased withdrawal: “Any appearance of a permanent occupation will both undermine domestic support here in the United States and play directly into the hands of those in the Middle East who–however wrongly–suspect us of imperial design.”

Undaunted by such pragmatism, President “Mission Accomplished” Bush twice demurred in his interview with the Post from Colin Powell’s prediction that US troops would begin leaving Iraq in the next year.

Despite what Bush may think, elections grant leaders temporary power, but it is history that determines the rightness and wrongness of their actions. As Abraham Lincoln noted, you can even fool all of the people some of the time. That is why the nation’s founders designed the Constitution to check the unbridled rule of the majority lest, driven by the passions of the moment, it embrace devastating error or even tyranny.

Consider that even without the debacle of Watergate, the reputation of the man who soundly defeated war hero and antiwar candidate George McGovern was ultimately doomed by his immoral and irrational decision to carpet-bomb most of Southeast Asia for years in a vain attempt to secure victory against a seemingly outmatched Third World country.

As we honor Medal of Freedom winner Martin Luther King Jr., a prophet of peace, it is depressing to consider that our President has just bestowed that same medal–the highest civilian honor in the land–on ex-CIA Director George Tenet and ex-Iraqi administrator L. Paul Bremer III.

After all, it was Tenet who kept Congress in the dark about the agency’s considerable intelligence that contradicted the White House lies about Iraq’s alleged nuclear weapons program and ties to Al Qaeda. And it was the bumbling Bremer who assured us throughout his stay in Iraq that everything over there was just going swimmingly–instead of admitting that it was actually going to hell in a handbasket.

No matter his electoral victory, Bush will never be absolved of sending young people to kill and be killed in a war without moral justification.

One does not have to be a Catholic to agree with the pope that the invasion of Iraq fails to meet the Christian standard of a “just war.”