James Fallows reminds us of his fall 2004 piece on Bush's lost year -- the twelve month period during which we could have been putting al-Qaeda out of business, but instead found key resources (most of all, the precious resource of attention) diverted to gearing up for war with Saddam. He remarks:
It is an old story, and it is the fundamental case against Iraq. Not that it was a good idea, poorly executed, that in the right circumstances might have made us safer. Rather, that it was exactly the wrong idea, from the start, because it distracted us from the enemy who had really harmed us, and whom we had a reasonable chance of containing and crushing, and toward an unnecessary fight guaranteed to multiply the number of enemies we faced worldwide. It should be possible to make the case that clearly.
Then again, it should have been possible to make the case in 2004.
I think it's worth saying that it wasn't magically "impossible" to make this case in '04. Indeed, from time to time John Kerry made it. And those tended the most effective moments of his campaign. As in the first debate:
Jim, the president just said something extraordinarily revealing and frankly very important in this debate. In answer to your question about Iraq and sending people into Iraq, he just said, "The enemy attacked us."
Saddam Hussein didn't attack us. Osama bin Laden attacked us. Al Qaida attacked us. And when we had Osama bin Laden cornered in the mountains of Tora Bora, 1,000 of his cohorts with him in those mountains. With the American military forces nearby and in the field, we didn't use the best trained troops in the world to go kill the world's number one criminal and terrorist.
They outsourced the job to Afghan warlords, who only a week earlier had been on the other side fighting against us, neither of whom trusted each other.
That's the enemy that attacked us. That's the enemy that was allowed to walk out of those mountains. That's the enemy that is now in 60 countries, with stronger recruits.
The problem was that this line of attack, though accurate, politically effective, and reflecting the thinking of some of the people in Kerry's circle wasn't clearly the position Kerry had actually taken back in late 2002 and early 2003. Thus, this point got tangled up in the song and dance about flip-flopping and for it before he was against it and the point couldn't consistently be placed at the center of Kerry's critique.