BY ERNEST F. HOLLINGS

The media have gone ape on whether or not invading Iraq was a mistake.

We know by now that Vietnam was a mistake, Afghanistan was a mistake and Iraq is a mistake.

I voted against going to war in Iraq the first time (Desert Storm) and I told my desk partner, Joe Biden, that I was voting against going to war in Iraq the second time.

I had asked Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld: “What does Mossad say about Iraq?”

I had learned on the Hoover Commission Task Force on Intelligence that Israel’s Mossad had “plants” all over the Mideast and knew exactly what was going on. Israel had knocked out a nuclear facility in Baghdad in 1981.

Rumsfeld evaded the question, and I was prepared to vote against Iraq’s invasion a second time. But when President George W. Bush came on TV days before we voted on Iraq in the U.S. Senate and stated: “We cannot wait until the smoking gun is a mushroom cloud,” I knew that the CIA had told him that somewhere in Iraq were weapons of mass destruction.

We had to support the president. I changed and voted to invade Iraq because of Bush’s misleading statement.

That problem with Iraq began in 1996. Benjamin Netanyahu had just become the prime minister of Israel and he commissioned a “Rand group” in Israel to recommend a course of action with the Palestinians.

Richard Perle, Douglas Feith and David Wurmser headed up the study: “Clean Break.”

Since Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat couldn’t be trusted, Israel should make a clean break by 1) Invading Lebanon, 2) Invading Syria for possessing weapons of mass destruction and, 3) Replacing Saddam Hussein with a Hashemite ruler favorable to Israel.

When Netanyahu balked, Perle, Feith, and Wurmser returned to the United States and joined Dick Cheney, Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Scooter Libby, Steve Cambone, Jeb Bush, Elliott Abrams and William Kristol in the Project for the New American Century (PNAC).

I remember debating a PNAC Resolution on Iraq in 1998. We finally agreed under Trent Lott, the Senate majority leader, to a resolution on Iraq by a voice vote so long as the last paragraph was worded: “Under no circumstance does this permit military action against Iraq.” At that time, we wanted to stir dissent and have Iraq headed for a democracy but under no circumstance invade.

In January 2001, 10 days before George W. Bush was sworn in as President, he came to Washington and went straight to the Pentagon.

Later that afternoon, I saw Secretary of Defense Bill Cohen and I asked: “What did Bush come to the Pentagon for?”

Cohen answered: “A briefing on Iraq.”

Secretary of Treasury Paul O’Neill went to the first meeting of the Security Council, intending to brief them on the recession, and all they wanted to talk about was Iraq.

The New American Century crowd was dedicated to going into Iraq. By 2003 they were ready.

I introduced a tax to pay for the Iraq War in January 2003, but Nicholas Calio, the White House representative, kept running around the Senate floor calling my tax bill “DOA — dead on arrival.”

Senator friends told me that if I could get President Bush to consider it, they would co-sponsor, but the “DOA” message continued and I couldn’t get any co-sponsors.

Reason or not, we invaded Iraq on March 19, 2003.

We supported Saddam during the 1980s. He told April Glasby, our U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, that Kuwait was drilling oil at an angle into Iraq and that he was going to teach Kuwait a lesson.

He wanted to know the U.S. position on his invasion of Kuwait.

Glasby checked and told Saddam: “We don’t have a dog in this fight.”

But of course we had a dog — Saudi Arabia.

Replacing Saddam with Iraqi Prime Minster Nouri al-Maliki was to no avail. Training Iraqi troops is to no avail.

As I wrote years ago: “Religion is stronger than freedom and democracy in the Mideast.”

If you want to know about the Mideast, ask Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency.

Note: Netanyahu doesn’t regularly reflect Israeli intelligence.

Ernest F. Hollings, a Democrat, served as S.C. governor from 1959-63 and in the U.S. Senate from 1966-2005.