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Cheney's fixation

WHAT THE perjury trial of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby really revealed was the astonishing lengths to which Vice President Dick Cheney and others in the Bush administration went to discredit Ambassador Joseph Wilson for his 2003 claim that the administration had been dead wrong about Saddam Hussein trying to buy material from Niger to make nuclear weapons. The intensity and single mindedness of this pursuit leapt out from the testimony.

The decision to "out" a covert CIA officer, Wilson's wife, which is a federal crime, showed a kind of desperation. The concept that she had sent her husband to Niger on some kind of boondoggle, instead of to investigate the Saddam sale, is bizarre in the extreme. With all due respect, Niger is neither Wilson's, or anybody else's, ideal boondoggle destination.

Second , the intensity of the Wilson smear campaign, long meetings with favored reporters in hotels and on the phone, even the using of classified information, seems obsessive.

As The New York Times put it: The evidence shows Cheney and Libby "countermanding and even occasionally misleading colleagues at the highest levels of Mr. Bush's inner circle" as they pursued a "covert public relations campaign ," not only to protect the case for going to war, but also Cheney's connection to flawed intelligence.

There you have it. In the most dysfunctional administration of our time, the vice president's office felt free to use classified information to bolster a false impression of Saddam's nuclear capabilities -- going to absurd lengths to keep the truth from the American people and perhaps even the White House. According to testimony, Cheney got Bush to declassify secret material, but the president was not told how Cheney was going to use it.

As for Wilson, his crime was to shout that the emperor had no clothes. And that had to be discredited and Wilson punished by hurting his wife.

We now know, of course, that weapons of mass destruction were more of an excuse, not the reason to go to war. Oh, the administration expected to find some, but, as the then deputy secretary of defense, Paul Wolfowitz would later say, WMD was just the thing everyone in the administration could agree on.

We know now that the real reason for invading Iraq was the neoconservative mantra, that Bush bought into after 9/11, that if we could only seize Iraq and make it over in our image we could transform the Middle East into a region favorable to America and Israel's interests.

We know now that even before Bush's inauguration, Cheney went to William Cohen, the out-going defense secretary, and said that Bush needed to be "briefed up" on his options in Iraq.

Cheney had been President Bush senior's secretary of defense, and had signed off on the decision not to press on to Baghdad in 1991. But he must have brooded about that later, fixating on fixing Saddam as a work unfinished.

President George H.W. Bush defended his administration's decision eloquently, saying that to have gone on to Baghdad would have left us in charge of desperately unhappy Arabs who would hate having us around.

Brent Scowcroft, his national security adviser, , wrote on the eve of the second war against Saddam that to invade Iraq could turn the Middle East into a "cauldron and thus destroy the war on terror."

Scowcroft and father Bush's vision is coming to pass. The Cheney/neo-conservative dream is bankrupt -- especially now that the war in Iraq has pulled so many resources out of Afghanistan that it looks as if we could lose there too. At best we are certainly not winning.

We know now, as White House terrorism adviser Richard Clarke has written, that the Bush administration took advantage of the tragedy of 9/11 to go after Iraq -- a country that had nothing to do with 9/11 or Al Qaeda.

Everybody now, hawks and doves, even the neo-cons, agree that the Bush administration mismanaged the Iraq war. But what Americans need to realize is that the whole concept of attacking a country in order to remake it into America's image is horribly wrong and counterproductive in the extreme -- not just its faulty execution.

The Libby trial jury is still out at this writing, but the concept that he could forget conversations he made on the excuse that he was too consumed with the plans for war is something I have trouble believing. At the time discrediting Wilson was Libby's war.

H.D.S. Greenway's column appears regularly in the Globe.