The best political commentary of the young year comes from Bill Maher, formerly of ABC's "Politically Incorrect" and now of the variation called "Real Time" on HBO, which actually permits free expression. In his monologue a couple of weeks ago, Maher said that President Bush had called Spanish leaders to extend America's sympathies in the commuter train terror and offer to invade a country that had absolutely nothing to do with it. Last week young American men and women winced from the sound of explosions in Baghdad as Pakistani troops thought they had al-Qaida's second-ranking leader surrounded in the mountains near the Afghan border only to discover that he might have slipped away through an elaborate network of tunnels. Let us dare to ask what if. What if those thousands of American troops occupying Iraq had instead been with Pakistani allies in those mountains near the Afghan border bearing down hard on the al-Qaida's inner circle? And what if Saddam Hussein, while still in tenuous power in Iraq, was stymied in developing the weapons of mass destruction we now know he didn't have - stymied, that is, by an intense United Nations inspection program that America had smartly prevailed upon the civilized world to conduct for us so that we could focus our unparalleled might on going after the mad SOBs who actually did 9-11 to us? This week comes revelatory detail from Richard Clarke, a counter-terrorism expert in four White Houses including, formerly, this one. He says President Bush pulled him into a room after 9-11 and insisted vigorously that he check again on whether Iraq had anything to do with the attack. This was after Clarke and every other knowledgeable source had belabored the obvious by blaming al-Qaida singularly and pointing out that Iraq had nothing to do with al-Qaida except exist on the serious cultural and religious outs with it. You see, Saddam was a secular despot who invoked Allah only for occasional propaganda purposes and al-Qaida was a bunch of fundamentalist religious crazies who thought they'd get their way with swarms of virgins in paradise if they suicide-bombed the evil Americans. Remember how you felt the day after 9-11, then ask yourself: Could you have imagined that America would let Pakistan chase the perpetrators while it used all its energy to try to clean up a mess it had made by invading and conquering a wholly irrelevant country? White House officials explain that Iraq has this to do with 9-11: The terror showed us that no longer can we wait around for our enemies to do us harm, but that we must pre-empt. This doctrine of pre-emption isn't new. We sent our boys to Vietnam in the late 1960s thinking we would pre-empt a domino effect of Soviet imperialism. But all we did was sacrifice them to an unwinnable guerrilla and civil war in a place we didn't understand. "We were wrong," says then-Defense Secretary Robert McNamara in an Oscar-winning documentary from last year. Donald Rumsfeld doesn't look like a man who has 30-plus years to admit error. Wesley Clark was, and is, right. He said America is not supposed to start wars, but end them. He said America changes the world for good when it allies with Europe, but tends to accomplish nothing when it moves throughout the world unilaterally. John Kerry voted for this massive Iraq blunder. Hillary Clinton, too. They and others were cowed by Bush's popularity and persuaded by the cliche that partisanship must end at water's edge. But one of life's primary tasks is admitting inevitable error and correcting it promptly. We must pull back in Iraq, prevail upon the U. N. we've disparaged to help fill the void of our abandonment and hie our might to the caves and tunnels near the Afghan-Pakistani border.