Boston — Maybe the soldier had learned to connect the dots in basic training. Or maybe in civilian life. These particular dots have been arranged so carefully and so deliberately that he seemed to move automatically from one to the next.
On my television screen, the man leaving for Iraq drew a portrait of the reasons for his tour of duty and its purpose. He was going to Iraq because:
Dot One -- We have to bring the war to them or they'll bring it to us. Dot Two -- It happened once.
Dot Three -- We can't let it happen again. Dot by dot, the soldier put the World Trade Center and Baghdad, Osama and Saddam, the War in Iraq and the War on Terrorism into the same pointillist portrait.
Of course, the reporter never asked if the soldier believed Iraq and al-Qaida were joined at the terrorist head. Nor did he ask who the collective "they" were. These are not the sort of questions any of us wants to ask a man about to go to war. But these are, at long, long last, questions that are dogging his commander in chief.
On the day after this interview, the Sept. 11 Commission reported that it turned up no evidence that Saddam had collaborated "in any way in attacks on the United States." Indeed, Thomas Kean, the commission chairman, added, "we believe ... that there were a lot more active contacts, frankly, with Iran and with Pakistan than there were with Iraq."
If this wasn't the first strike at the image, it was the most damaging. So the White House lined up its dot defense. This time the dots were called ties, links, connections, contacts and relationships.
"The reason I keep insisting that there was a relationship between Iraq and Saddam and al-Qaida," said an irritated President Bush, "is because there was a relationship between Iraq and al-Qaida." He sounded like a parent telling his children to believe him "because I said so."
But Lee Hamilton, the commission vice chair, said, "All of us understand that when you begin to use words like 'relationship' and 'ties' and 'connections' and 'contacts,' everybody has a little different view of what those words mean." Some are just more slippery than others.
From the outset, I was dismayed that the Iraq War was not only launched and defended but accepted in the name of 9-11. Osama and Saddam, a religious fanatic and a secular despot, were morphed into terrorist brethren. Afghanistan and Iraq merged into one War on Terror.
After Bush laid down the trail again last September -- "We have carried the fight to the enemy ... so that we do not meet him again on our own streets" -- a Washington Post poll showed that 69 percent of Americans believed it was likely or very likely Saddam was involved in Sept. 11.
By April, just half of us believed Saddam was personally involved in the attacks. But when a Harris Poll rephrased the question this month, again this month, 69 percent of Americans agreed that Saddam was supporting al-Qaida. Is a supporting role good enough reason for war now? Does a mere walk-on make war just?
The White House will, I know, hold onto these last weapons in its arsenal.
Remember when pollster Frank Luntz urged Republicans to greenwash the language, to talk about "climate change" instead of "global warming"? This year he has turned dots into talking points.
Don't talk about the war in Iraq, he wrote in a strategy paper. Do talk about the War on Terror. Don't talk about pre-emption. Do say "it is better to fight the War on Terror on the streets of Baghdad than on the streets of New York or Washington." Don't forget the terrorist attacks. Do remember "9-11 changed everything."
Where are the fact-checkers when we need them? Lined up to take on Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11"?
The president plunged into Iraq on the grounds that we were in imminent danger from Saddam Hussein. The belief in weapons of mass destruction, the certainty that we'd be greeted as liberators, the promise of an easy win are all now shattered. Instead we have a daily dose of casualties ... including the casualty of our nation's reputation.
Students of logic will tell you that there is no way to prove a negative. There's no way to prove that there are "no connections," however distant, between Iraq and some al-Qaida operative somewhere.
But as the "ties" fray and the "links" loosen and the "relationships" spread out to six degrees of separation, there is a way to prove that we are still being willfully misled. Keep your eye on their dots.
Ellen Goodman is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.