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The Moment Has Come to Get Rid of Saddam’

The only thing that worries me about you is your optimism.

—Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar to President Bush, from the Crawford Transcript of February 22, 2003

Surely one of the agonizing attributes of our post–September 11 age is the unending need to reaffirm realities that have been proved, and proved again, but just as doggedly denied by those in power, forcing us to live trapped between two narratives of present history, the one gaining life and color and vigor as more facts become known, the other growing ever paler, brittler, more desiccated, barely sustained by the life support of official power.

At the center of our national life stands the master narrative of this bifurcated politics: the Iraq war, fought to eliminate the threat of weapons of mass destruction that turned out not to exist, brought to a quick and glorious conclusion on a sunlit aircraft carrier deck whose victory celebration almost instantly became a national embarrassment. That was four and a half years ago; the war’s ending and indeed its beginning, so clearly defined for that single trembling instant, have long since vanished into contested history.

The latest entry in that history appeared on September 26, when the Spanish daily El País published a transcript of a discussion held on February 22, 2003—nearly a month before the war began—between President Bush and José María Aznar, then prime minister of Spain. (See the transcript below.) Though the leaders met at Mr. Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas, some quickly dubbed the transcript Downing Street Memo II, and indeed the document does share some themes with that critical British memorandum, mostly in its clear demonstration of the gap between what President Bush and members of his administration were saying publicly during the run-up to the war and what they were saying, and doing, in more private settings. Though Hans Blix, the UN chief inspector whose teams were then scouring Iraq for the elusive weapons, had yet to deliver his report—two weeks later he would tell the Security Council that it would take not “years, nor weeks, but months” to complete “the key remaining disarmament tasks”—the President is impatient, even anxious, for war. “This is like Chinese water torture,” he says of the inspections. “We have to put an end to it.”

Even in discussing Aznar’s main concern, the vital need to give the war international legitimacy by securing a second UN resolution justifying the use of force—a resolution that, catastrophically, was never achieved—little pretense is made that an invasion of Iraq is not already a certainty. “If anyone vetoes,” the President tells Aznar,

we’ll go. Saddam Hussein isn’t disarming. We have to catch him right now. Until now we’ve shown an incredible amount of patience. There are two weeks left. In two weeks we’ll be militarily ready…. We’ll be in Baghdad by the end of March.

The calendar has already been determined—not by the inspectors and what they might or might not find, nor by the diplomats and what they might or might not negotiate, but by the placement and readiness of warplanes and soldiers and tanks.

When did war become a certainty? The gradations of the President’s attitudes are impossible to chart, though as far back as the previous July, the head of British intelligence, Sir Richard Dearlove, on his famous consultations in Washington, had detected “a perceptible shift in attitude.” As Dearlove was quoted reporting to the British cabinet in the most famous passage in the Downing Street Memo:

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….1

It is on this point—the need of the Europeans to have a UN resolution justifying force, and thus a legal, or at least internationally legitimate, war, and the deep ambivalence among Bush administration officials about taking “the UN route”—that much of the drama of the Crawford transcript turns, making it into a kind of playlet pitting the sinuous, subtle, and sophisticated European, worried about the great opposition in Europe, and in Spain in particular, to an American-led war of choice with Iraq (“We need your help with our public opinion,” Aznar tells Bush), against the blustery, impatient, firing-straight-from-the-hip American cowboy. Bush wants to put out the second resolution on Monday. Aznar says, “We’d prefer to wait until Tuesday.” Bush counters, “Monday afternoon, taking the time zone differences into account.” To Bush’s complaint that the UN process was like “Chinese water torture,” Aznar offers soothing understanding and a plea to take a breath:

Aznar: I agree, but it would be good to be able to count on as many people as possible. Have a little patience.

Bush: My patience has run out. I won’t go beyond mid-March.

Aznar: I’m not asking you to have indefinite patience. Simply that you do everything possible so that everything comes together.

Aznar, a right-wing Catholic idealist who believes in the human rights arguments for removing Saddam Hussein, finds himself on a political knife edge: more than nine Spaniards in ten oppose going to war and millions have just marched through the streets of Madrid in angry opposition; he is intensely concerned to gain a UN resolution making the war an internationally sanctioned effort and not just an American-led “aggression.” Bush responds to his plea for diplomacy with a rather remarkable litany of threats directed at the current temporary members of the Security Council. “Countries like Mexico, Chile, Angola, and Cameroon have to know,” he declares, “that what’s at stake is the United States’ security and acting with a sense of friendship toward us.” In case Aznar doesn’t get the point, he describes to the Spaniard what each nation will suffer if it doesn’t recognize “what’s at stake”:

[Chilean President Ricardo] Lagos has to know that the Free Trade Agreement with Chile is pending Senate confirmation, and that a negative attitude on this issue could jeopardize that ratification. Angola is receiving funds from the Millennium Account that could also be compromised if they don’t show a positive attitude. And Putin must know that his attitude is jeopardizing the relations of Russia and the United States.

What is striking about this passage is not only how crude and clumsy it is, with the President of the United States spouting threats like a movie gangster—he presumably wants the Spaniard to convey them directly to the various leaders—but how ineffective the bluster turned out to be. None of these countries changed their position on a second resolution, which, in the event, was never brought before the Security Council to what would have been certain defeat. Bush, in making the threats, did the one thing an effective leader is supposed always to avoid: he issued an order that was not obeyed, thus demonstrating the limits of his power. (The Iraq war itself, meant as it was to “shock and awe” the world and particularly US adversaries, did much the same thing.)

Along with bluster comes stern self-righteousness. Aznar asks whether “there’s a possibility of Saddam Hussein going into exile”—“the biggest success,” he tells the President, “would be to win the game without firing a single shot”—and Bush answers that there is: the Egyptians say

he’s indicated that he’s willing to go into exile if they let him take $1 billion and all the information that he wants about the weapons of mass destruction.

And would such exile, asks Aznar, come with a “guarantee” (presumably against prosecution or extradition)? “No guarantee,” declares Bush. “He’s a thief, a terrorist, a war criminal. Compared to Saddam, Milosevic would be a Mother Teresa.” Though it’s hard to evaluate whether Saddam was really willing to leave Iraq—the Egyptians, Saudis, and others who were then touting the possibility all had an interest in seeing Saddam leave and the Sunni power structure remain in place—it is inconceivable that he would do so without some sort of guarantee, a possibility Bush forecloses.

What is most interesting in this passage, and indeed in the entire transcript, is what it reveals about Bush’s attitudes and character. One moment he blusters and threatens, the next he speaks reverently and self-righteously about how he is guided by “a historic sense of responsibility”:

When some years from now History judges us, I don’t want people to ask themselves why Bush, or Aznar, or Blair didn’t face their responsibilities. In the end, what people want is to enjoy freedom. Not long ago, in Romania, I was reminded of the example of Ceauåüsescu: it took just one woman to call him a liar for the whole repressive system to come down. That’s the unstoppable power of freedom. I am convinced that I’ll get that resolution.

He did not get it, of course. Despite his strong conviction, neither Chile nor Angola nor Russia proved ready to change their votes, threat or no threat. There is a difference between being sure and being right. Bush’s conviction, here as elsewhere, came not from an independent analysis of the facts—of the interests and intentions of the nations involved—but from the wellspring of faith. He has confused rhetoric, however uplifting, and reality. Aznar, the sophisticated European, comments wryly on this. It is the most Jamesian moment in the playlet of Crawford; one can almost see the subtly arched eyebrow:

Aznar: The only thing that worries me about you is your optimism.

Bush: I am an optimist, because I believe that I’m right. I’m at peace with myself. It’s up to us to face a serious threat to peace.

It is worrying, as Aznar remarks, to rely on optimism grounded only in belief. The Spaniard knows that gaining that second Security Council resolution, and thus the critical international legitimacy for the war, will be very hard; in many nations, launching a war against Iraq, particularly before the UN inspectors have finished their work, is deeply unpopular. Faith cannot replace facts, nor can a historic sense of mission. Both may be personally comforting—they plainly are to George W. Bush—but they don’t obviate the need to know things.

Bush came to office a man who knew little of the world, who had hardly traveled outside the country, who knew nothing of the practice of foreign policy and diplomacy. Two years later, after the attacks of September 11 and his emergence as a self-described “war president,” he has come to know only that this lack of knowledge is not a handicap but perhaps even a strength: that he doesn’t need to know things in order to believe that he’s right and to be at peace with himself. He has redefined his weakness—his lack of knowledge and experience—as his singular strength. He believes he’s right. It is a matter of generations and destiny and freedom: it is “up to us to face a serious threat to peace.” For Bush, faith, conviction, and a felt sense of destiny—not facts or knowledge—are the real necessities of leadership.2

So Bush is confident—confident about winning the second resolution and thus international legitimacy; confident, because “we’re developing a very strong humanitarian aid package,” that “there’s a good basis for a better future” in a “post-Saddam Iraq.” In fact, of course, at the very moment he is telling these things to the Spanish prime minister in Crawford, Texas, the postwar planning in Washington is a shambles, consisting of little more than confusion and savage internecine warfare between the Defense and State Departments.

The plan for governance in “post-Saddam Iraq” does not exist, all discussion of it having been paralyzed by a bitter dispute between officials in the Pentagon, State Department, and CIA that the President will never resolve. The Iraqi “civil society” that he tells Aznar is “relatively strong” will soon be decimated by the prolonged looting and chaos that follows on the entry of American troops into Baghdad. The “good bureaucracy” he boasts about in Iraq will shortly be destroyed by a radical de-Baathification ordered by the American proconsul that he almost certainly never approved. The Iraqi army that he decides in early March will be retained and used for reconstruction will instead be peremptorily dissolved, to catastrophic effect.

If these radical departures from the President’s chosen plan have dampened his optimism and faith—or indeed have even led him to try to discover what happened—there is no evidence of it. When Bush’s latest biographer, Robert Draper, asked him why the Iraqi army had not been kept intact, as the President had decided it should be, Bush replied, “Yeah, I can’t remember. I’m sure I said, ‘This is the policy, what happened?’”3

This is the policy, what happened?” As a subtitle for a history of the Iraq war, one could certainly do worse. Prime Minister Aznar is gone now, having been fatally weakened by his support for the Iraq war and the failure to obtain United Nations support for it; almost exactly a year after the war began, jihadists targeted the Madrid train station, killing nearly two hundred Spaniards and sending the prime minister to electoral defeat. Tony Blair, the star of the Downing Street Memo, is gone as well, his popularity having never recovered from his staunch support of the war. George W. Bush, on the other hand, nearly five years after he launched the war, remains confident of victory, just as he was confident he would win that second UN resolution. There is no sign that his confidence is any more firmly rooted in reality now than it was then. Instead of reality we have faith—in himself, in the deity, in “the unstoppable power of human freedom.” He stands as lead actor in his own narrative of history, a story that grows steadily paler and more contested, animated solely by the authority of official power. George W. Bush remains, we are told, “at peace with himself.”

THE CRAWFORD TRANSCRIPT

Following is the transcript of the conversation between George W. Bush and José María Aznar in Crawford, Texas, on February 22, 2003. It was adapted, with the assistance of Scott Staton, from Álvaro Degives-Más’s translation of a Spanish text originally published in El País on September 26, 2007.

President Bush: We’re in favor of obtaining a second resolution in the Security Council and we’d like to do it quickly. We’d like to announce it on Monday or Tuesday [February 24, 2003].

Prime Minister Aznar: Better on Tuesday, after the meeting of the European Union’s General Affairs Council. It’s important to maintain the momentum achieved by the resolution of the European Union summit [in Brussels, on Monday, February 17]. We’d prefer to wait until Tuesday.

PB: It could be Monday afternoon, taking the time zone differences into account. In any case, next week. We’re looking at a resolution drafted in such a way that it doesn’t contain mandatory elements, that doesn’t mention the use of force, and that states that Saddam Hussein has been incapable of fulfilling his obligations. That kind of resolution can be voted for by lots of people. It would be similar to the one passed during Kosovo [on June 10, 1999].

PMA: Would it be presented to the Security Council before and independently of a parallel declaration?

Condoleezza Rice: In fact there won’t be a parallel declaration. We’re thinking about a resolution that would be as simple as possible, without too many details on compliance that Saddam could use as [an excuse to stall via] phases and consequently fail to meet. We’re talking with Blix [the UN chief inspector] and others on his team, to get ideas that can help introduce the resolution.

PB: Saddam Hussein won’t change and he’ll continue playing games. The time has come to get rid of him. That’s it. As for me, I’ll try from now on to use a rhetoric that’s as subtle as can be while we’re seeking approval of the resolution. If anyone vetoes [Russia, China, and France together with the US and the UK have veto power in the Security Council, being permanent members], we’ll go. Saddam Hussein isn’t disarming. We have to catch him right now. Until now we’ve shown an incredible amount of patience. There are two weeks left. In two weeks we’ll be militarily ready. I think we’ll get the second resolution. In the Security Council we have the three Africans [Cameroon, Angola, and Guinea], the Chileans, the Mexicans. I’ll talk to all of them, also Putin, naturally. We’ll be in Baghdad by the end of March. There’s a 15 percent chance that at that point Saddam Hussein will be dead or will have fled. But those possibilities don’t exist until we’ve shown our resolve. The Egyptians are talking to Saddam Hussein. It seems that he’s indicated that he’s willing to go into exile if they let him take $1 billion and all the information that he wants about the weapons of mass destruction. [Muammar] Gaddafi has told Berlusconi that Saddam Hussein wants to go. Mubarak tells us that in those circumstances there are many possibilities that he’ll be assassinated.

We’d like to act with the mandate of the United Nations. If we act militarily, we’ll do it with great precision and focus very closely on our objectives. We’ll decimate the loyal troops and the regular army will know quickly what it’s about. We’ve sent a very clear message to Saddam’s generals: we’ll treat them as war criminals. We know that they’ve accumulated a huge amount of dynamite to blow up the bridges and other infrastructure, and blow up the oil wells. We’ve planned to occupy those wells very quickly. The Saudis will also help us by putting as much oil as necessary on the market. We’re developing a very strong humanitarian aid package. We can win without destruction. We’re already putting into effect a post-Saddam Iraq, and I believe there’s a good basis for a better future. Iraq has a good bureaucracy and a civil society that’s relatively strong. It could be organized into a federation. Meanwhile, we’re doing all we can to attend to the political needs of our friends and allies.

PMA: It’s very important to [be able to] count on a resolution. It isn’t the same to act with it as without it. It would be very convenient to count on a majority in the Security Council that would support that resolution. In fact, having a majority is more important than anyone casting a veto. We think the content of the resolution should state, among other things, that Saddam Hussein has lost his opportunity.

PB: Yes, of course. That would be better than to make a reference to “all means necessary” [he refers to the standard UN resolution that authorizes the use of “all means necessary”].

PMA: Saddam Hussein hasn’t cooperated, he hasn’t disarmed, we should make a summary of his breaches and send a more elaborate message. That would, for example, allow Mexico to make a move [he refers to changing its position, opposed to the second resolution, that Aznar heard personally from President Vicente Fox on Friday, February 21 during a travel stop he made in Mexico City].

PB: The resolution will be tailored to help you as best it can. I don’t care much about the content.

PMA: We’ll send you some texts.

PB: We don’t have any text. Just one condition: that Saddam Hussein disarms. We can’t allow Saddam Hussein to stall until summer. After all, he’s had four months already in this last phase, and that’s more than sufficient time to disarm.

PMA: That text would help us sponsor it and be its coauthors, and convince many people to sponsor it.

PB: Perfect.

PMA: Next Wednesday [February 26] I’ll meet with Chirac. The resolution will have started to circulate by then.

PB: That seems good to me. Chirac knows the reality perfectly. His intelligence services have explained it to him. The Arabs are sending Chirac a very clear message: Saddam Hussein should go. The problem is that Chirac thinks he’s Mister Arab, and in reality he’s making life impossible for them. But I don’t want any rivalry with Chirac. We have different points of view, but I would want that to be all. Give him my best regards. Really! The less he feels that rivalry exists between us, the better for all of us.

PMA: How will the resolution and the inspectors’ report be combined?

Condoleezza Rice: Actually there won’t be a report on February 28, the inspectors will present a written report on March 1, and their appearance before the Security Council won’t happen until March 6 or 7 of 2003. We don’t expect much from that report. As with the previous ones, it will be six of one and half a dozen of the other.

I have the impression that Blix will now be more negative than before about the Iraqis’ intentions. After the inspectors have appeared before the Council we should anticipate the vote on the resolution taking place one week later. Meanwhile, the Iraqis will try to explain that they’re meeting their obligations. It’s neither true nor sufficient, even if they announce the destruction of some missiles.

PB: This is like Chinese water torture. We have to put an end to it.

PMA: I agree, but it would be good to be able to count on as many people as possible. Have a little patience.

PB: My patience has run out. I won’t go beyond mid-March.

PMA: I’m not asking you to have indefinite patience. Simply that you do everything possible so that everything comes together.

PB: Countries like Mexico, Chile, Angola, and Cameroon have to know that what’s at stake is the United States’ security and acting with a sense of friendship toward us.

[Chilean President Ricardo] Lagos has to know that the Free Trade Agreement with Chile is pending Senate confirmation, and that a negative attitude on this issue could jeopardize that ratification. Angola is receiving funds from the Millennium Account that could also be compromised if they don’t show a positive attitude. And Putin must know that his attitude is jeopardizing the relations of Russia and the United States.

PMA: Tony [Blair] would like to extend to the 14th.

PB: I prefer the 10th. This is like good cop, bad cop. I don’t mind being the bad cop and that Blair be the good one.

PMA: Is it true that there’s a possibility of Saddam Hussein going into exile?

PB: Yes, that possibility exists. Even that he gets assassinated.

PMA: An exile with some guarantee?

PB: No guarantee. He’s a thief, a terrorist, a war criminal. Compared to Saddam, Milosevic would be a Mother Teresa. When we go in, we’ll uncover many more crimes and we’ll take him to the International Court of Justice in The Hague. Saddam Hussein believes he’s already gotten away. He thinks France and Germany have stopped holding him to his responsibilities. He also thinks that the protests of last week [Saturday, February 15] protect him. And he thinks I’m much weakened. But the people around him know that things are different. They know his future is in exile or in a coffin. That’s why it’s so important to keep the pressure on him. Gaddafi tells us indirectly that this is the only thing that can finish him. Saddam Hussein’s sole strategy is to stall, stall, and stall.

PMA: In reality, the biggest success would be to win the game without firing a single shot while going into Baghdad.

PB: For me it would be the perfect solution. I don’t want the war. I know what wars are like. I know the destruction and the death that comes with them. I am the one who has to comfort the mothers and the widows of the dead. Of course, for us that would be the best solution. Besides, it would save us $50 billion.

PMA: We need your help with our public opinion.

PB: We’ll do everything we can. On Wednesday I’ll talk about the situation in the Middle East, and propose a new peace framework that you know, and about the weapons of mass destruction, the benefits of a free society, and I’ll place the history of Iraq in a wider context. Maybe that’s of help to you.

PMA: What we are doing is a very profound change for Spain and the Spaniards. We’re changing the politics that the country has followed over the last two hundred years.

PB: I am just as much guided by a historic sense of responsibility as you are. When some years from now History judges us, I don’t want people to ask themselves why Bush, or Aznar, or Blair didn’t face their responsibilities. In the end, what people want is to enjoy freedom. Not long ago, in Romania, I was reminded of the example of Ceauåüsescu: it took just one woman to call him a liar for the whole repressive system to come down. That’s the unstoppable power of freedom. I am convinced that I’ll get that resolution.

PMA: That would be the best.

PB: I made the decision to go to the Security Council. In spite of the disagreements within my administration, I told my people that we should work with our friends. It would be wonderful to have a second resolution.

PMA: The only thing that worries me about you is your optimism.

PB: I am an optimist, because I believe that I’m right. I’m at peace with myself. It’s up to us to face a serious threat to peace. It annoys me to no end to contemplate the insensitivity of the Europeans toward the suffering Saddam Hussein inflicts on the Iraqis. Perhaps because he’s dark, far away, and a Muslim, many Europeans think that everything is fine with him. I won’t forget what [former NATO Secretary General, the Spaniard Javier] Solana once asked me: why we Americans think the Europeans are anti-Semites and incapable of facing their responsibilities. That defensive attitude is terrible. I have to admit that I have a splendid relationship with Kofi Annan.

PMA: He shares your ethical concerns.

PB: The more the Europeans attack me, the stronger I am in the United States.

PMA: We will have to make your strength compatible with the support of the Europeans.

Letters

Clarifications December 20, 2007

  1. 1

    Dearlove’s consultations had taken place on July 20, 2002, in Washington and at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, and he reported to a meeting of the British “war cabinet” at Ten Downing Street three days later. See Mark Danner, The Secret Way to War: The Downing Street Memo and the Iraq War’s Buried History (New York Review Books, 2006), pp. 6–7 and pp. 88–89.

  2. 2

    And not just for George Bush. The mystique of leadership—of faith over facts—pulled others along in its wake. Condoleezza Rice, for example, makes a curious appearance in the discussion, assuring the President and the Spanish prime minister that she has “the impression” that Hans Blix, whose report is due the following week, “will now be more negative than before about the Iraqis’ intentions.” In fact, quite the opposite: Blix will tell the Security Council that “the key remaining disarmament tasks” can be achieved not in “years, nor weeks, but months.” Here is what Blix told the Security Council on March 7, 2003:

    How much time would it take to resolve the key remaining disarmament tasks? While cooperation can and is to be immediate, disarmament and at any rate the verification of it cannot be instant. Even with a proactive Iraqi attitude, induced by continued outside pressure, it would still take some time to verify sites and items, analyse documents, interview relevant persons, and draw conclusions. It would not take years, nor weeks, but months. Neither governments nor inspectors would want disarmament inspection to go on forever. However, it must be remembered that in accordance with the governing resolutions, a sustained inspection and monitoring system is to remain in place after verified disarmament to give confidence and to strike an alarm, if signs were seen of the revival of any proscribed weapons programmes.

    Blix’s conclusions were not only not “more negative than before about the Iraqis’ intentions”; he suggests that inspections of all the suspect sites could be completed in a matter of months. President Bush, needless to say, is not willing to wait for months, or even for weeks, for the additional inspections to be completed. What would have happened if he had been? On the one hand, the administration’s willingness to delay might have secured a deal whereby additional countries would have supported “all means necessary” to deal with Saddam. On the other, the inspectors, given more time, would have discovered no weapons, likely leading the administration to argue that the inspections themselves were useless—not that the weapons didn’t exist. But the momentum for war would have been blunted.

  3. 3

    According to the New York Times account of this exchange:

    Mr. Bush acknowledged one major failing of the early occupation of Iraq when he said of disbanding the Saddam Hussein–era military, “The policy was to keep the army intact; didn’t happen.”

    But when Mr. Draper pointed out that Mr. Bush’s former Iraq administrator, L. Paul Bremer III, had gone ahead and forced the army’s dissolution and then asked Mr. Bush how he reacted to that, Mr. Bush said, “Yeah, I can’t remember, I’m sure I said, ‘This is the policy, what happened?’” But, he added, “Again, Hadley’s got notes on all of this stuff,” referring to Stephen J. Hadley, his national security adviser.

    See Jim Rutenberg, “In Book, Bush Peeks Ahead to His Legacy,” The New York Times, September 2, 2007, and Robert Draper, Dead Certain: The Presidency of George W. Bush (Free Press, 2007), p. 211.

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