Monday, May 16, 2005
The notorious Downing Street memo has just been published in its entirety by the New York Review of Books. "The Secret Way to War," an accompanying article by Mark Danner, is available at TomDispatch, with a characteristically acute introduction by site host Tom Engelhardt:
That the Review is the first publication here to print the document is not only an honorable (and important) act, but a measure of the failure of major American papers to offer attention where it is clearly due. After all, whole government investigations have, in the past, gone in search of "smoking guns." In fact, the Bush administration spent much time searching fruitlessly for its own "smoking gun" of WMD in Iraq -- and this process was considered of front-page importance in our major papers and on the TV news. That a "smoking gun" document about the nature of the war in the making has appeared in this fashion, not in Kyrgyzstan but in England; that no one in the British or American governments has even bothered to dispute its provenance or accuracy; and that, with a few honorable exceptions like columnist Molly Ivins, that gun was allowed to lie on the ground smoking for days, hardly commented upon (except on the political internet, of course), tells us much about our present moment. Should you want to consider the miserable coverage in this country, check out FAIR's commentary on the matter . . . .And, from the text of Danner's article:
But shouldn't it be a front-page story that, as Danner points out below, all the subsequent arguments we've had to endure about the state of, and accuracy of American intelligence on Iraq, were actually beside the point? After all, as the smoking-gun memo makes perfectly clear, the decision to go to war was made before the intelligence -- good, bad, or indifferent -- was even seriously put into play. As the secret memo also makes clear, administration officials, and the President himself, had already rolled the dice and placed their bet -- on the existence of WMD in Iraq as an excuse for the war they so desperately wanted. (Their Iraqi exile sources had, of course, assured them that it was so and, as the Brits reported in July 2002, they were already wondering, "For instance, what were the consequences, if Saddam used WMD on day one [of an invasion].") After all, it seemed so logical. Saddam had used such weapons in the 1980s in the Iran-Iraq War and against Kurds in Iraq. American troops and UN inspectors had found such weaponry in profusion after our first Gulf War. So why not now as well? . . . .
Since Danner -- whose book Torture and Truth: America, Abu Ghraib, and the War on Terror does much to explain the nature of the fix the Bush administration now finds itself in -- covers the British document in great and fascinating detail below, let me just add a final note: To me, perhaps the most telling line in the memo, given what's happened since, is the observation of Sir Richard Dearlove, the head of M16 (the British CIA equivalent), just back from a U.S. visit, that "[t]here was little discussion in Washington of the aftermath after military action." This line not only represented the greatest gamble the Bush administration's top officials would make, but the hubris with which they approached the taking of Iraq. As true believers in force – nothing impressed them more than the advanced technology of destruction they possessed and its possible applications -- they were already awed by themselves and deeply believed in the shock to come once they hit Iraq hard. As the British smoking-gun memo indicates in that single classic line, they placed their deepest faith in their conviction that, once the invasion was completed successful and Saddam had fallen, everything else in Iraq would simply fall into place as well. Planning for a post-war occupation? What me worry?
Here the inspectors were introduced, but as a means to create the missing casus belli. If the UN could be made to agree on an ultimatum that Saddam accept inspectors, and if Saddam then refused to accept them, the Americans and the British would be well on their way to having a legal justification to go to war (the attorney general's third alternative of UN Security Council authorization).
Thus, the idea of UN inspectors was introduced not as a means to avoid war, as President Bush repeatedly assured Americans, but as a means to make war possible. War had been decided on; the problem under discussion here was how to make, in the prime minister's words, "the political context ...right." The "political strategy" -- at the center of which, as with the Americans, was weapons of mass destruction, for "it was the regime that was producing the WMD" -- must be strong enough to give "the military plan the space to work." Which is to say, once the allies were victorious the war would justify itself. The demand that Iraq accept UN inspectors, especially if refused, could form the political bridge by which the allies could reach their goal: "regime change" through "military action."
But there was a problem: as the foreign secretary pointed out, "on the political strategy, there could be US/UK differences." While the British considered legal justification for going to war critical -- they, unlike the Americans, were members of the International Criminal Court -- the Americans did not. Mr. Straw suggested that given "US resistance, we should explore discreetly the ultimatum." The defense secretary, Geoffrey Hoon, was more blunt, arguing "that if the Prime Minister wanted UK military involvement, he would need to decide this early. He cautioned that many in the U.S. did not think it worth going down the ultimatum route. It would be important for the Prime Minister to set out the political context to Bush." The key negotiation in view at this point, in other words, was not with Saddam over letting in the United Nations inspectors -- both parties hoped he would refuse to admit them, and thus provide the justification for invading. The key negotiation would be between the Americans, who had shown "resistance" to the idea of involving the United Nations at all, and the British, who were more concerned than their American cousins about having some kind of legal fig leaf for attacking Iraq. Three weeks later, Foreign Secretary Straw arrived in the Hamptons to "discreetly explore the ultimatum" with Secretary of State Powell, perhaps the only senior American official who shared some of the British concerns; as Straw told the secretary, in Bob Woodward's account, "If you are really thinking about war and you want us Brits to be a player, we cannot be unless you go to the United Nations."