Secret Way to War
By Mark Danner
It was October 16, 2002, and the United States Congress had just voted to
authorize the President to go to war against Iraq. When George W. Bush came
before members of his Cabinet and Congress gathered in the East Room of the
White House and addressed the American people, he was in a somber mood
befitting a leader speaking frankly to free citizens about the gravest decision
their country could make.
The 107th Congress, the President said, had just become "one of the few called
by history to authorize military action to defend our country and the cause of
peace." But, he hastened to add, no one should assume that war was inevitable.
Though "Congress has now authorized the use of force," the President said
emphatically, "I have not ordered the use of force. I hope the use of force
will not become necessary." The President went on:
"Our goal is to fully and finally remove a real threat to world peace and to
America. Hopefully this can be done peacefully. Hopefully we can do this without
any military action. Yet, if Iraq is to avoid military action by the
international community, it has the obligation to prove compliance with all the
world's demands. It's the obligation of Iraq."
Iraq, the President said, still had the power to prevent war by "declaring and
destroying all its weapons of mass destruction" -- but if Iraq did not declare
and destroy those weapons, the President warned, the United States would "go
into battle, as a last resort."
It is safe to say that, at the time, it surprised almost no one when the
Iraqis answered the President's demand by repeating their claim that in fact
there were no weapons of mass destruction. As we now know, the Iraqis had in
fact destroyed these weapons, probably years before George W. Bush's ultimatum:
"the Iraqis" -- in the words of chief U.S. weapons inspector David Kaye -- "were
telling the truth."
As Americans watch their young men and women fighting in the third year of a
bloody counterinsurgency war in Iraq -- a war that has now killed more than
1,600 Americans and tens of thousands of Iraqis -- they are left to ponder "the
unanswered question" of what would have happened if the United Nations weapons
inspectors had been allowed -- as all the major powers except the United
Kingdom had urged they should be -- to complete their work. What would have
happened if the UN weapons inspectors had been allowed to prove, before the
U.S. went "into battle," what David Kaye and his colleagues finally proved
Thanks to a formerly secret memorandum published by the London Sunday Times on
May 1, during the run-up to the British elections, we now have a partial answer
to that question. The memo, which records the minutes of a meeting of Prime
Minister Tony Blair's senior foreign policy and security officials, shows that
even as President Bush told Americans in October 2002 that he "hope[d] the use
of force will not become necessary" -- that such a decision depended on whether
or not the Iraqis complied with his demands to rid themselves of their weapons
of mass destruction -- the President had in fact already definitively decided,
at least three months before, to choose this "last resort" of going "into
battle" with Iraq. Whatever the Iraqis chose to do or not do, the President's
decision to go to war had long since been made.
On July 23, 2002, eight months before American and British forces invaded,
senior British officials met with Prime Minister Tony Blair to discuss Iraq.
The gathering, similar to an American "principals meeting," brought together
Geoffrey Hoon, the defense secretary; Jack Straw, the foreign secretary; Lord
Goldsmith, the attorney general; John Scarlett, the head of the Joint
Intelligence Committee, which advises the prime minister; Sir Richard Dearlove,
also known as "C," the head of MI6 (the equivalent of the CIA); David Manning,
the equivalent of the national security adviser; Admiral Sir Michael Boyce, the
chief of the Defense Staff (or CDS, equivalent to the chairman of the Joint
Chiefs); Jonathan Powell, Blair's chief of staff; Alastair Campbell, director
of strategy (Blair's communications and political adviser); and Sally Morgan,
director of government relations.
After John Scarlett began the meeting with a summary of intelligence on Iraq
-- notably, that "the regime was tough and based on extreme fear" and that thus
the "only way to overthrow it was likely to be by massive military action," "C"
offered a report on his visit to Washington, where he had conducted talks with
George Tenet, his counterpart at the CIA, and other high officials. This
passage is worth quoting in full:
"C reported on his recent talks in Washington. There was a perceptible shift
in attitude. Military action was now seen as inevitable. Bush wanted to remove
Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and
WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy. The NSC
had no patience with the UN route, and no enthusiasm for publishing material on
the Iraqi regime's record. There was little discussion in Washington of the
aftermath after military action."
Seen from today's perspective this short paragraph is a strikingly clear
template for the future, establishing these points:
1. By mid-July 2002, eight months before the war began, President Bush had
decided to invade and occupy Iraq.
2. Bush had decided to "justify" the war "by the conjunction of terrorism and
3. Already "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy."
4. Many at the top of the administration did not want to seek approval from
the United Nations (going "the UN route").
5. Few in Washington seemed much interested in the aftermath of the war.
We have long known, thanks to Bob Woodward and others, that military planning
for the Iraq war began as early as November 21, 2001, after the President
ordered Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to look at "what it would take to
protect America by removing Saddam Hussein if we have to," and that Secretary
Rumsfeld and General Tommy Franks, who headed Central Command, were briefing
American senior officials on the progress of military planning during the late
spring and summer of 2002; indeed, a few days after the meeting in London leaks
about specific plans for a possible Iraq war appeared on the front pages of the
New York Times and the Washington Post.
What the Downing Street memo confirms for the first time is that President
Bush had decided, no later than July 2002, to "remove Saddam, through military
action," that war with Iraq was "inevitable" -- and that what remained was
simply to establish and develop the modalities of justification; that is, to
come up with a means of "justifying" the war and "fixing" the "intelligence and
facts...around the policy." The great value of the discussion recounted in the
memo, then, is to show, for the governments of both countries, a clear
hierarchy of decision-making. By July 2002 at the latest, war had been decided
on; the question at issue now was how to justify it -- how to "fix," as it
were, what Blair will later call "the political context." Specifically, though
by this point in July the President had decided to go to war, he had not yet
decided to go to the United Nations and demand inspectors; indeed, as "C"
points out, those on the National Security Council -- the senior security
officials of the U.S. government -- "had no patience with the UN route, and no
enthusiasm for publishing material on the Iraqi regime's record." This would
later change, largely as a result of the political concerns of these very
people gathered together at 10 Downing Street.
After Admiral Boyce offered a brief discussion of the war plans then on the
table and the defense secretary said a word or two about timing -- "the most
likely timing in US minds for military action to begin was January, with the
timeline beginning 30 days before the US Congressional elections" -- Foreign
Secretary Jack Straw got to the heart of the matter: not whether or not to
invade Iraq but how to justify such an invasion:
"The Foreign Secretary said he would discuss [the timing of the war] with
Colin Powell this week. It seemed clear that Bush had made up his mind to take
military action, even if the timing was not yet decided. But the case was thin.
Saddam was not threatening his neighbors, and his WMD capability was less than
that of Libya, North Korea or Iran."
Given that Saddam was not threatening to attack his neighbors and that his
weapons of mass destruction program was less extensive than those of a number
of other countries, how does one justify attacking? Foreign Secretary Straw had
an idea: "We should work up a plan for an ultimatum to Saddam to allow back in
the UN weapons inspectors. This would also help with the legal justification
for the use of force."
The British realized they needed "help with the legal justification for the
use of force" because, as the attorney general pointed out, rather dryly, "the
desire for regime change was not a legal base for military action." Which is to
say, the simple desire to overthrow the leadership of a given sovereign country
does not make it legal to invade that country; on the contrary. And, said the
attorney general, of the "three possible legal bases: self-defence,
humanitarian intervention, or [United Nations Security Council] authorization,"
the first two "could not be the base in this case." In other words, Iraq was not
attacking the United States or the United Kingdom, so the leaders could not
claim to be acting in self-defense; nor was Iraq's leadership in the process of
committing genocide, so the United States and the United Kingdom could not claim
to be invading for humanitarian reasons. This left Security Council
authorization as the only conceivable legal justification for war. But how to
At this point in the meeting Prime Minister Tony Blair weighed in. He had
heard his foreign minister's suggestion about drafting an ultimatum demanding
that Saddam let back in the United Nations inspectors. Such an ultimatum could
be politically critical, said Blair -- but only if the Iraqi leader turned it
"The Prime Minister said that it would make a big difference politically and
legally if Saddam refused to allow in the UN inspectors. Regime change and WMD
were linked in the sense that it was the regime that was producing the WMD....
If the political context were right, people would support regime change. The
two key issues were whether the military plan worked and whether we had the
political strategy to give the military plan the space to work."
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
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
From: New York Review of Books. See the full article there