Initially, this column was going to be a screed about the Bush administration's confusing message on Iraq. How, the piece would start, does President George W. Bush expect to mobilize the country -- let alone the world -- behind him if he keeps coming up with new reasons for invading Iraq? First there's "regime change." Then the switch to disarmament. Now the goal is a democratic Iraq and more freedom-loving societies in the Middle East. What about Congress? the column would ask. Why is it hugging the sidelines as the administration sets out to rid the world of Saddam Hussein and his weapons of terror, and to remake the political map of the Persian Gulf?

That, however, is not what today's offering is about. And for good reason. It would have missed the mark.

Believe it or not, the American call for "regime change" in Iraq didn't start with George W. Bush. For that, we must return to the days of the 105th Congress, when Bill Clinton occupied the White House. Recall a piece of legislation dubbed the "Iraq Liberation Act of 1998" (Public Law 105-338). Not only did it call for Saddam Hussein's ouster, it also spelled out the goal of replacing his regime with a democratic Iraq.

Here's what the law says: "It should be the policy of the United States to support efforts to remove the regime headed by Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq and to promote the emergence of a democratic government to replace that regime."

You may think the Iraq Liberation Act was ramrodded down the throats of reluctant Democrats by a House and Senate dominated by conservative Republicans. Consider the final tally: The House passed the bill by a vote of 360 to 38, with 157 Democrats joining 202 Republicans and the House's one independent to back the removal of Saddam Hussein's regime. The act, with bipartisan cosponsorship of two Democrats and six Republicans, also passed the Senate by unanimous consent. And Bill Clinton signed it into law on Oct. 31, 1998, declaring at the time that the evidence was overwhelming that freedom and the rule of law "will not happen under the current Iraq leadership."

Yes, regime change has been articulated by the administration, world without end. Bush did it again during his televised news conference on Thursday night. But that policy, along with support for a defeated Iraq's transition to democracy, was embraced years earlier by Bill Clinton and a bipartisan Congress.

So what's the point?

It's easy, perhaps too easy, for Democrats such as Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle to knock the administration's approach to Iraq as untenable now that the United States is on the ropes in the U.N. Security Council and much of the world seems mobilized against Washington. But the encouragement to overthrow Hussein and to bring a new Iraqi government to power are goals initiated by Congress -- with Daschle's support, and, it should be noted, with minimal debate or discussion with the American people.

To be sure, the Iraq Liberation Act contemplated American-backed Iraqi opposition groups doing the actual fighting. But the endorsement of military sanctions against Iraq, along with financial assistance to get the job done, was a congressional mandate backed on both sides of the Capitol and on both sides of the aisle.

And that, as I watch Democratic leaders and some presidential contenders now slip and slide, peep and hide and try to have it both ways on Iraq, is what is so scuzzy.

Check out last fall's joint resolution on the use of force against Iraq, which passed the House 296 to 133 and the Senate 77 to 23, with Daschle voting "aye." It authorizes Bush to go to war with Iraq if he thinks U.N. diplomacy "is not likely to lead to enforcement of all relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions regarding Iraq."

Yes, the Bush White House is eager to get it on with Saddam Hussein. But whether you are pro- or anti-war, please keep this in mind when accounting time comes: The idea of confronting Saddam Hussein, removing him from power and liberating the Iraqi people from the horror of autocratic rule got its validation on Capitol Hill.

Which makes it all the more galling to learn that now, with more than 200,000 troops massed in the Persian Gulf region and with the nation on the verge of war, many of the members who voted yes to all that is now unfolding in the United Nations and regarding Iraq were merely posturing. They never had the courage of their convictions.

I write this as one who has serious reservations about the wisdom of this country's trying to democratize a post-Hussein Iraq and the rest of the Middle East. The notion of an American or U.S.-picked international Caesar running the show in Iraq with thousands of allied military and civilian workers ought to concentrate the mind of every member of Congress. How would an Iraqi government honed and shaped by Western powers be regarded by its neighbors? And what's the price tag for rebuilding Iraq and running its economy while at the same time suppressing warlordism, refereeing regional strife and fighting off internal and external power grabs? That Congress hasn't budgeted for any of this makes the situation all the riskier, given our already shaky economy.

If, or probably at this stage the issue is when, war comes, Bush said in his news conference that "we will disarm Iraq . . . there will be a regime change." That will be only one milestone. After the promised military victory, we will get to see whether a U.S.-created democratic Iraq has much of a chance.

At some point down the road, however, there will be another day of reckoning here in this country as we tabulate the costs in American lives and treasure. Congress, as certain as the seasons, will call the administration on the carpet to account for things that it did or failed to do in Iraq.

But, lest we forget, the U.S. Congress also deserves its day in the dock.

e-mail: kingc@washpost.com