A gag Christmas gift came to my house, a “countdown clock” key chain labeled “Backwards Bush.” As I write there are 1,114 days, 8 hours, 27 minutes, and–let’s see–20.9 seconds left in his second term. That’s an eternity if you don’t like Bush.

On November 20 the Tribune editorial page issued a challenge to the kind of readers who take comfort in Backwards Bush key chains. It dared them to see if they could handle the truth about the number one count in their indictment. Over the next several weeks, said the Tribune, it intended to take a long, hard look at the origins of the war in Iraq. “Did George W. Bush intentionally mislead this nation and its allies into war?” it asked. “Or is it his critics who have misled Americans, recasting history to discredit the president and his policies?”

In 2003 the Tribune editorial page had championed Bush’s war; would it now find against Bush and therefore against itself? That didn’t seem likely–especially given the polarized set of alternatives it offered, which ruled out the possibility of honorable misjudgment. Surely the Tribune would never admit to being deceived.

The November 20 editorial went on to say, “This re-examination of the administration’s rationale for war offers doses of discomfort for the self-assured–those who have unquestioningly supported, or opposed, the ongoing war in Iraq.” But no one could doubt who’d wind up being told to swallow the larger “doses of discomfort.”

I’m guessing most Bush bashers who read the Tribune editorials, which concluded on December 28, judged them a shameless apologia for the president. Given the language that launched them, I found them surprisingly balanced.

Try to remember the state of the nation three years ago. Most Americans supported the looming invasion of Iraq because Bush said it was the right thing to do; others thought the idea was reprehensible, many simply because the idea was Bush’s. But some Americans with no love for the president believed the war might accomplish something useful. The troubling questions in their minds–our minds, because I was one–were these: Could a war be justified that seemed not absolutely necessary and that Bush (less so Tony Blair) flogged by playing to our fears? Was this the right war at the wrong time–when bin Laden should be the quarry, not Hussein? And if going to war was the thing to do, could we trust this war to Bush, who touted it as if unaware that war is chaotic and evil?

The Tribune signed on with its eyes wide open. “The gauzy vision that proponents of war offer for a post-Hussein Iraq is, to be frank, unconvincing,” it allowed in its March 2, 2003, editorial “The case for war.” But the United Nations and Europe had waltzed with Hussein since the 1991 gulf war, enabling his “12 years of cunning defiance,” and in the Tribune’s view he’d become too dangerous to put up with any longer.

The “core issue” was clear: “Saddam Hussein must disarm,” and he hadn’t. “Despite 17 UN directives, Hussein has refused to account for his stores of deadly biological and chemical weapons, or to come clean about his nuclear aspirations.” While the world chose “to kick the can down the road and hope nothing bad happens,” a “thug” remained free to butcher his own people, intimidate his neighbors, and “mock the rest of the world.”

The Tribune’s recent editorials did no philosophizing on just and unjust wars. They declined to wonder what else we might have done to make America safer with the time, blood, and treasure expended in Iraq. The Tribune simply compared what Bush and his people said then to the facts as we know them now.

I’ll quote mainly from the December 28 editorial, which summarized the series. Much of what the White House said before the war about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction turned out to be “flat-out wrong,” the Tribune said. “In putting so much emphasis on illicit weaponry, the White House advanced its most provocative, least verifiable case for war when others would have sufficed.” As for Saddam Hussein’s links to Al Qaeda, “No compelling evidence ties Iraq to Sept. 11, 2001, as the White House implied. . . . By stripping its rhetoric of the ambiguity present in the intel data, the White House exaggerated this argument for war.” And as for Iraq as a sponsor of terrorism generally, “The argument that Hussein was able to foment global terror against this country and its interests was exaggerated.” What American intelligence surmised and the Bush administration believed, the Tribune said in its December 7 editorial on Iraq and terrorism, surpassed the “less bombastic facts on the ground.” But given the prospect of Hussein selling WMDs to terrorists, the Tribune forgave Bush for erring on the side of belligerence.

If you believe the only justification for war is self-defense, you probably believe that if Bush was wrong about WMDs and state-sponsored terrorism his case for invading Iraq falls apart. If so, the only remaining question for the Tribune to answer was whether the Bush administration intentionally misled us or–to consider a possibility the Tribune didn’t allow for when it introduced its series–was itself misled by Hussein’s intransigence and its own faulty intelligence. The latter, the Tribune believes. The Tribune managed to conclude that the case for war still holds up, but it seemed sufficiently humbled by its look backward to drop the polarizing language about one side or the other deceiving the country. In its conclusion it spoke gently of “people of patriotism and integrity” who disagree.

So what were the Tribune’s reasons for reaffirming Bush’s war? It took a second look at that “gauzy vision” it dismissed three years ago. “The White House was correct in predicting that long subjugated Iraqis would embrace democracy,” wrote the Tribune on December 28. “And while Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites have major differences to reconcile, a year’s worth of predictions that Sunni disaffection could doom self-rule have, so far, proven wrong.”

These are sweet but clumsy thoughts. A robust election-day turnout doesn’t mean the Iraqis have embraced democracy–it means they’re eager to choose their next rulers with the tool at hand. When a government peacefully voted in is peacefully voted out we might be able to say that democracy has taken hold. As for the idea that Sunni disaffection could doom self-rule–well of course it could. All we can say for now is that it hasn’t doomed self-rule yet and maybe it never will.

Despite its flaws, I think the Tribune series showed the proud owners of Backwards Bush countdown clocks that there was a case for the war we’re fighting, and it wasn’t something so obviously stupid and mendacious and driven by oil that only fools and scoundrels believed it. The war did something good by booting Hussein and it might do more good yet.

Bush bashers should concede this. Perhaps it occurred to some of them during the Tribune’s six-week-long project that the paper was testing the purity of water long since over the dam. When I’d finished it I thought, “Good. Now let’s move on. Let’s debate the war the way it needs to be debated–on how it’s been run.” From inadequate troop levels to the lack of armor on troop carriers to the brutalizing of prisoners and sacking of independent-minded generals to the shrug that “stuff happens” when liberation gave way to anarchy, the White House has plenty to answer for. The public wants to end this war, but it doesn’t want to lose it. It doesn’t think we can afford to.

One of the curious aspects of the Tribune series was the occasional dissonance between stories in the same editions. For instance, the November 20 kickoff installment that foreshadowed a verdict favoring the White House shared the paper with a page-one story that began: “The German intelligence officials responsible for one of the most important informants on Saddam Hussein’s suspected weapons of mass destruction say the Bush administration and the CIA exaggerated his claims in the run-up to the Iraq war.”

On November 30 the editorial page allowed that Bush had relied on faulty intelligence but argued, “Assertions that the Bush administration strong-armed intelligence analysts in 2002 and 2003, or misled the nation in making its nuclear case for war, challenge logic.” Page three that day offered a story with the headline “U.S. military paying Iraqi editors to publish propaganda.” On December 4 the Tribune pondered the paradox of preemption. Because we got Hussein before he got us, “no one knows, and no one can know, what an undisturbed Iraq would have done in subsequent years.” On the next page, op-ed columnist Steve Chapman, the Tribune’s most acerbic in-house war critic, offered a more biting paradox of his own: “If the enemy’s main goal is to kill Americans, turning the war over to Iraqi forces won’t solve the problem. On the contrary, it will leave the insurgents no choice but to come after us right here at home.”

Chapman went on, “Bush prefers not to admit that the only reason Iraq is a terrorist hotbed is that we invaded and fostered chaos.”

I doubt that mischievous editors were seeing to it that reality undermined Tribune opinion. But they did make it harder to read the case for war without wondering how much it matters anymore.