DETROIT — Four years late and half a trillion dollars short. Why didn’t George Tenet tell us this stuff when it mattered — before we invaded Iraq?

Tenet could have been a hero. He could have changed history. Imagine the scenario: It’s Jan. 18, 2003. Congress has signed off on military action. Tens of thousands of troops are in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, waiting for marching orders. War fever is at a pitch, yet millions of Americans remain unconvinced. At an antiwar rally on the Washington Mall, the Rev. Jesse Jackson steps to the podium to address 200,000 marchers. “It does not stand to reason,” he says as the crowd cheers, “to have an unfinished confrontation with al-Qaida, ignore the Middle East and fast-forward to Iraq.” Then he introduces the next speaker, who is visibly angry and upset. “Now let’s hear from someone who speaks from firsthand knowledge. Ladies and gentleman, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency.”

“The president and vice president — my bosses — are liars,” says the CIA director, pointing toward the White House. “They say we must go to war to keep our country safe, but they have never held a serious debate, even among themselves, to discuss whether Iraq really poses a threat.”

The major TV networks break into their Sunday afternoon sports broadcasts to air the speech.

“The Bush administration doesn’t care about weapons of mass destruction,” Tenet continues. “They know that Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11. They’re just using his face to sell you a war that dangerous ideologues like Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld have wanted for years. My fellow Americans, I will not stand by passively and watch our country wage an unjustifiable, unwinnable war that will kill thousands of innocent Americans and Iraqis. I hereby resign my position as CIA director.”

Instead, Tenet chose careerism over greatness.

Bush and Cheney are the public faces of the lost war against Iraq, and the doomed occupation of Afghanistan, and the battle we never fought — to bring the 9/11 attackers to justice. Their flawed ideology led us to disaster, but you can’t really blame visionaries for rolling the dice on their plans to remake the world in their image. After all, that’s what visionaries — geniuses and/or madmen — do.

My mother grew up in Nazi-occupied France. “At the end of the war,” she remembers, “we let the German functionaries pack up and leave. But we killed their French collaborators. Why? The Germans were just doing their job, following orders. But the French knew better, or should have known better.”

Just as the Nazis wouldn’t have gotten anything done without their Vichy partners, Bush and Cheney needed the technocratic expertise of opportunistic men like Tenet — as well as the political cover provided by such shortsighted enablers as Condi Rice and Colin Powell. Richard Clarke, Paul O’Neil, Tom Ridge, Tommy Thompson, Ari Fleischer, Christie Todd Whitman — they all knew better than to accept positions with an illegitimate administration who viewed We the People as an annoying obstacle to their agenda. But they did it just the same.

None of them spoke up when it could have made a difference.

During the late summer of 2002 an overwhelming majority of Americans were against war with Iraq. Six months later, a relentless stream of propaganda — “mushroom cloud” imagery, phony links between Hussein and 9/11, the Niger yellowcake fairy tale — had changed their minds. Then-Secretary of State Colin Powell was trotted out to reassure the remaining skeptics. “There can be no doubt that Saddam Hussein has biological weapons and the capability to rapidly produce more, many more,” Powell told the United Nations 20 days before the invasion, adding that there was “no doubt in my mind” that Hussein was trying to produce nuclear weapons. “My colleagues, every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources. These are not assertions. What we are giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence.”

Not. “I’m not reading this,” Powell had shouted while preparing for his U.N. speech, written by then-Cheney chief of staff Scooter Libby. He threw pages of the draft in the air. “This is bullsh*t!”

Nonetheless, buckling under, Powell carried out his mission. Like a good soldier. Like a toady.

Loyalty to erstwhile employers earns one a reputation for discretion that can prove useful when future job prospects arise. Then again, whatever happened to a public servant’s first loyalty — to the American people?

Resigning on principle isn’t just the right thing to do. It’s also smart politics. If Powell had chucked Libby’s speech and told the world what he really believed — that there were no WMD, that there was no link between Iraq and al-Qaida, that Bush was hell-bent on a war in which countless U.S. troops would die because he refused to equip and arm them properly — the war wouldn’t have happened.

And Powell would be president.

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