Tom Friedman doesn’t care if the United States ever finds weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The recently discovered skull of a murdered Iraqi political prisoner is all the retroactive justification he needs for the pre-emptive war: “That skull, and the thousands more that will be unearthed, are enough for me,” he wrote in his April 27 New York Times column. “Mr. Bush doesn’t owe the world any explanation for missing chemical weapons (even if it turns out the White House hyped this issue).”

Nothing succeeds like success. Who cares about WMDs when you have Baghdad? Just the usual handful of liberal columnists, it seems–oh, and the rest of the world, which is less willing than Mr. Friedman to be hoodwinked in the interest of a higher cause. Here in America, we’ve already forgotten about the nuclear evidence that wasn’t. When the proposition that aluminum tubes found in Iraq could have been used to refine uranium was debunked by UN atomic energy head Mohamed ElBaradei, and when the evidence Colin Powell presented that he said proved Iraq had imported uranium from Niger turned out to be based on forged documents, did the ubiquitous former CIA analyst Kenneth Pollack, whose The Threatening Storm specifically argued for war on the grounds that Saddam was developing nuclear weapons, say, “Oh well, never mind”? (Come to think of it, did Pollack, on his rounds as a TV commentator, ever point out that his book called for war after breaking Al Qaeda and cooling Israeli-Palestinian tensions?)

Bush himself said in his State of the Union address that the case for war was not so much Saddam Hussein’s brutal doings as the threat he represented to the United States, and his neighbors, as warmonger and terrorist. So if it turns out that Saddam did not have significant stocks of biological or chemical weapons and had no dealings with Osama bin Laden–according to the London Observer, Tony Blair never believed he did–can we rewind the tape and get the Baghdad antiquities museum and the national library and all those dead people back?

Perhaps Saddam did have lots of WMDs, and perhaps the United States will find them. Not a day goes by, it seems, without a front-page announcement of their discovery that is retracted, on page B18, the next morning. Meanwhile, as David Corn reports on page 11, the hunt for WMDs is hardly proceeding with the seriousness and singlemindedness one might expect, given how impatient Bush was with poor Hans Blix. After all, if they are out there and we don’t find them quick, then someone else–a Baath party loyalist, a renegade scientist, Al Qaeda–might get hold of them. Oh, but I’m forgetting–they’re in Syria.

It’s now sport to mock the antiwar movement for predicting that the invasion would be a catastrophe, with huge casualties on both sides, millions displaced and the Middle East in flames. Fortunately, the worst did not happen. But the antiwar movement was right about the war being unnecessary for our own security: As the twenty-six-day “cakewalk” to Baghdad demonstrated, the moth-eaten Baathist regime, with its poorly equipped soldiers and unenthusiastic citizenry, was in no shape to threaten the United States or cause world turmoil. That should be properly acknowledged, discussed and debated, not waved away, in the rush of victory, as a mere detail.

We’re not supposed to compare Iraq to Vietnam–this is not, repeat, not, your father’s quagmire!–but how’s this for a similarity? If Saddam’s dangerousness was a pretext, a way to win popular support by spreading fear, those insistent charges of WMD possession start looking rather like the manufactured Gulf of Tonkin incident. Is it OK for the government to lie as long as things go well?

As the Administration begins the project of nation-building that Bush the candidate said he wanted to avoid as President, Iraqi “regime change” is presented as if it will be as easy a cakewalk as the war itself. The neoconservatives point to the encouraging examples of Japan and Germany post-World War II. But Afghanistan is a more relevant case, since it is a project of this very Administration. There, a mere seventeen months after overthrowing the Taliban and installing the genial Hamid Karzai as head of a warlord-heavy central government, the United States no longer talks about turning Afghanistan into a modern country run on democratic principles. In Bush’s initial proposed budget, he allotted no money for Afghanistan–none.

Iraq, we are told, is a different story: It has a large educated middle class and a modern infrastructure; it has all that oil. But it also has a lot of angry people. As soon as Iraqis could demonstrate, they carried placards that read, No to Saddam, No to America, Yes to Islam. I’m just guessing, but those million Shiite pilgrims flogging themselves bloody on the road to Karbala might not be so enthusiastic about the Iraqi National Congress, or modern roles for women, or the values of the Enlightenment as interpreted by The Weekly Standard. One day Jay Garner says Iraqis will run their country themselves, the next day Donald Rumsfeld says that under no circumstances will Iraq become an Iranian-style Islamic fundamentalist state. So what happens if that’s what the majority of Iraqis want?

It would be strange indeed if “regime change” means replacing tyranny with theocracy, but the pitiful number of Iraqi women involved in official gatherings to set up the transitional government is a bad sign. Meanwhile, the United States seems to be doing everything possible to infuriate and alienate the Iraqi people: In Faluja, near Baghdad, soldiers shot into a crowd of anti-American demonstrators, killing thirteen and wounding seventy-five; at the next day’s demonstrations, they killed two more.

In a column from February 12, when he still had his doubts, Friedman compared invasion to having to buy what you bust at a pottery store: “We break Iraq, we own Iraq.” If ownership turns out to be less exhilarating than the war looked on Fox, if it’s expensive, dangerous and unrewarding, will the American people hold the Bush Administration accountable for saying “WMD” when they meant “regime change” all along? Or will we be too busy cakewalking our way to Damascus and Teheran?