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…
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