Acknowledging the Rush to War

It is perhaps ironic – but charming to one who finds the phenomenon that intentions good and ill so often go awry more amusing than infuriating – that it has been in Great Britain, with its vaunted Official Secrets Act, that leaks have occurred that have made the mainstream press take notice of the extreme likelihood that the Bush administration was bent on attacking Saddam Hussein no matter what, once the terrorist attacks of 9/11 gave them the thinnest of pretexts. This belated recognition is welcome, and might – though I might be stretching here – serve as a mild deterrent on public opinion the next time our reputed leaders have a hankering to rush this country into war again.

What is somewhat striking, however, is that it was not all that hard to figure this out, either during the summer of 2002, the time of the vaunted Downing Street Memo, or in late January 2003, the time when David Manning, who was British prime minister Tony Blair’s chief foreign policy adviser at the time, wrote the memo highlighted earlier this week in a New York Times story. There were plenty of people without access to secret briefings in the inner circle – I was far from the only one – who were quite sure (though we sometimes entertained the hope that we were wrong), from analyzing past and present attitudes and influences and current events, that this country was headed inevitably toward war and all those UN resolutions and presentations were mere window dressing.


Even so, what the Times found in the memo is instructive. As the Times’ Don Van Natta tells it, in late January, before Colin Powell’s presentation, before the effort, which failed, to get a second UN resolution condemning Iraq and capable of being interpreted as a declaration of war, "behind closed doors, the president was certain that war was inevitable. During a private two-hour meeting in the Oval Office on Jan. 31, 2003, he made clear to Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain that he was determined to invade Iraq without the second resolution, or even if international arms inspectors failed to find unconventional weapons, said a confidential memo about the meeting written by Mr. Blair’s top foreign policy adviser and reviewed by the New York Times."

Mr. Manning wrote that "The start date for the military campaign was now penciled in for 10 March," paraphrasing Mr. Bush. "This was when the bombing would begin."

All right, coalition troops invaded Iraq on March 19. Pretty close.

"Our diplomatic strategy had to be arranged around the military planning," he wrote in the five-page memo.

So Colin Powell’s appearance at the United Nations was a charade? Apparently so. But many people thought so at the time. Even so, however, the memo offers, as Van Natta put it, "an unfiltered view of two leaders on the brink of war, yet supremely confident."

The two expected a quick victory and a possibly complicated but essentially easy transition to democratic Iraqi governance. Bush predicted it was "unlikely there would be internecine warfare between the different religious and ethnic groups." Blair agreed.

Quoting Van Natta again: "The memo also shows that the president and the prime minister acknowledged that no unconventional weapons had been found inside Iraq. Faced with the possibility of not finding any before the planned invasion, Mr. Bush talked about several ways to provoke a confrontation, including a proposal to paint a United States surveillance plane in the colors of the United Nations in hopes of drawing fire, or assassinating Mr. Hussein." (I know the "Mr." sounds odd but it’s the Times’ style to use Mr. for all males, which is defensible and works for most Western European-derived names but can sound odd for some other languages or cultures.)

Van Natta covered the Times by noting in the next paragraph that "the memo does not make clear whether they reflected Mr. Bush’s extemporaneous suggesting or were elements of the government’s plan."


All this is interesting, but it is hardly news that the Bush administration was hell-bent for war during the period immediately prior to the invasion, and that virtually nothing would have been able to deter it. It is interesting that by January 31 both Bush and Blair knew no weapons of mass destruction had been found and had fairly solid reason to believe that the hope that any would be found was somewhere between slim and none.

Many of us on the antiwar side kept our powder dry during that period. I had no way of knowing to anything resembling a certainty that Saddam didn’t have such weapons, although by the end of January the failure of Hans Blix’s team to find anything was powerfully suggestive. But we remembered that prior to the first gulf war the supposed experts had underestimated how far along Saddam had been on the path to acquiring a nuclear weapon. And given Saddam’s record and character, it wouldn’t have been amazing to discover that he did have hidden caches of nasty chemical and biological weapons.

The Bushies now want to spin the fact that few people besides Scott Ritter said in 2002 or 2003 that it was unlikely that Saddam had all those dreaded WMDs into the assertion the "everybody thought he had weapons." Not everybody did. Many of us had doubts but hedged our bets in public. If the Bush administration had been as cautious about what it though it knew, a lot fewer Iraqis and Americans might be dead.


During January and February of 2003 I was convinced that war was inevitable, but I wrote columns, one on demonstrations and doubt, one on how weak the case was for war, and yet one more on the difference between a sometimes justifiable preemptive war and an almost always unjustifiable preventive war, explaining that what the administration was about to do was the latter. I also did one on Iraqi history, explaining how it was likely to complicate matters even if the initial military assault was thoroughly successful, something the administration apparently didn’t consider for more than a few fleeting moments.

I don’t suppose I really thought my puny musings would shift the tide of public opinion or affect what seemed like an inevitable rush to war. But I wanted to get on the record that some Americans understood the risks the administration was about to undertake on behalf of the rest of the country – most personally and dangerously by the service people duty-bound to obey their commander in chief, no matter how misguided – before the invasion occurred and before the complications thoughtful observers knew would ensue.

But it didn’t take ESP to be reasonably sure that the war was inevitable. In a column in August 2002, shortly after the fabled Downing Street Memo, I wrote plaintively about "a shred of hope that second thoughts might at least slow down if not actually prevent the apparently inevitable decision to effect a ‘regime change’ in Iraq through military means." On July 16 I wrote that "It is virtually commonplace now to note that the Bush administration policy is to seek “regime change” – a marvelously flexible formulation – in Iraq, and the only question seems to be how it is to be accomplished." That’s pretty close to what the Downing Street Memo said, and I had no inside information.


The point of all this is not to pat war critics on the back, but to offer the hope that those who raise doubts the next time a president (or either party) starts making a case for attacking another country for some reason other than posing an imminent threat to this country might have a more receptive audience. Presidents and other political leaders lie, and this trait is especially strong when they are beating the war drums. A healthy skepticism is always appropriate.

Once the dust has cleared from the Iraq war, it would be helpful to develop a case for a more modest, less intrusive foreign policy that would be less likely to provoke attacks or get young men and women involved in perilous places where the objectives are vague and uncertain. But that’s a topic for another column, or another book.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).