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The Secret Way to War

1.

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 US weapons inspector David Kay—“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 US went “into battle,” what David Kay and his colleagues finally proved afterward?

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 WMD.”

  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 US government—“had no patience with the UN route, and no enthusi-asm 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.1 This left Security Council authorization as the only conceivable legal justification for war. But how to get it?

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 down:

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 authorization).

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    The latter charge might have been given as a reason for intervention in 1988, for example, when the Iraqi regime was carrying out its Anfal campaign against the Kurds; at that time, though, the Reagan administration—comprising many of the same officials who would later lead the invasion of Iraq—was supporting Saddam in his war against Iran and kept largely silent. The second major killing campaign of the Saddam regime came in 1991, when Iraqi troops attacked Shiites in the south who had rebelled against the regime in the wake of Saddam’s defeat in the Gulf War; the first Bush administration, despite President George H.W. Bush’s urging Iraqis to “rise up against the dictator, Saddam Hussein,” and despite the presence of hundreds of thousands of American troops within miles of the killing, stood by and did nothing. See Ken Roth, “War in Iraq: Not a Humanitarian Intervention” (Human Rights Watch, January 2004).

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