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…


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