New “Downing Street” memos keep popping up. In recent days, several confidential memos written by senior officials in Tony Blair’s government in March 2002 have garnered attention. (AfterDowningStreet.org has all of them posted.) These records–first obtained by Michael Smith, a British journalist formerly working at the Daily Telegraph and now with the Sunday Times of London–provide more evidence that Bush’s case for war was less than convincing for his number-one ally. They also illustrate the hubris that drove Blair in his wartime partnership with George W. Bush.
The first and now infamous Downing Street memo chronicled a high-level briefing for Blair that occurred in July 2002, during which the head of British intelligence said Bush was already committed to war and intelligence and facts were being “fixed around the policy” and during which Foreign Minister Jack Straw reported the WMD case for war was “thin.” (See my previous column on the memo.) Months before this secret meeting, British officials were already sharing similar sentiments among themselves (not with the public, of course). In a March 22, 2002, memo for Straw, Peter Ricketts, political director of Britain’s foreign service, noted that “even the best survey of Iraq’s WMD programmes will not show much advance in recent years on the nuclear, missile or [chemical weapons/biological weapons] fronts.” He also reported that the “US scrambling to establish a link between Iraq and Al Aaida [sic] is so far frankly unconvincing.”
A March 8, 2002, options paper prepared by Blair’s national security aides noted that Iraq’s nuclear weapons program was “effectively frozen,” its missile program “severely restricted,” and its chemical and biological weapons programs “hindered.” Saddam Hussein, it reported, “has not succeeded in seriously threatening his neighbors.” This paper also said the intelligence on Iraq’s supposed WMD program was “poor.” It noted that there was no “recent evidence” of Iraqi ties to al Qaeda.
All of this contradicts what Bush told Americans before the invasion of Iraq. He and his aides claimed that Iraq had reconstituted its nuclear weapons program, that Hussein was producing and stockpiling biological and chemical weapons, that Baghdad was in cahoots with al Qaeda, and that the intelligence obtained by the United States and other governments (presumably including the Brits) left “no doubt” that Iraq posed a direct WMD threat to the United States.
The British memos are further evidence that Bush overstated the main reasons for the war. They also show that his key line of defense is bunk. When confronted with questions about the lack of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Bush and his allies have consistently pointed to bad intelligence. But the previously released Downing Street memos and the new ones indicate that the Brits–who had access to the prewar intelligence–saw that the WMD case (based on that intelligence) was, as Jack Straw observed, weak. One might ask, why did they have such a different take than the one Bush shared with the public?
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These memos demonstrate that the issue is not whether Bush was unwittingly duped by bad intelligence. (Bad, George Tenet, bad.) No, Bush tried to sell lousy–or “thin”–intelligence as the basis for the war he desired. According to the new documents, the Brits saw through this. But they did not share their informed perspective with the British or American public. Instead, they went along for the ride.
Why did Blair join with Bush? Probably for several reasons. The memos do show the Blair gang was worried about Saddam Hussein and WMDs, despite realizing Bush was hyping the threat. But the Ricketts’ memo suggests Blair saddled up with Bush partly so he could steer the American president. In this memo–entitled “Advice for the Prime Minister”–Ricketts wrote:
By sharing Bush’s broad objective, the Prime Minister can help shape how it is defined, and the approach to achieving it. In the process he can bring home to Bush some of the realities which will be less evident from Washington. He can help Bush make good decisions by telling him things his own machine probably isn’t.
Ricketts was essentially saying that Bush was not fully attached to reality and that his “own machine” was not providing him all the necessary information. What a harsh indictment of a partner-in-war. Ricketts feared that Bush consequently would make rotten decisions about the war in Iraq. But, Ricketts noted, Blair could be a positive influence by spelling out “the realities” for Bush. Blair, though, could only do that if he was with the program. This is a chilling passage. It illuminates the arrogance of the Blairites. Because they knew better than the not-fully-informed president, they assumed they could nudge Bush in the appropriate direction. But they were signing up for a war led by a man whom they believed was not in sync with reality and who could not be trusted to wage war properly on his own.
What hubris on the part of the Blair team. Feeling superior to Bush, they felt they would be the tail that would wag the dog. But Blair ended up with a war based on a “thin” claim that has yielded an enormous mess. And the fellow in charge of finding a way out of this jam is a guy whose “own machine” keeps reality from him.
Conservatives, some editors in the establishment media, and even the usually smart columnist Michael Kinsley have dismissed the significance and newsworthiness of the Downing Street memos. But these documents afford the public a more extensive view of the misrepresentations Bush deployed to grease the way to war. And they illustrate the serious doubts the Brits had concerning the lead arguments for war and concerning the man who was making those arguments. If only the Downing Street documents could be augmented by a similar set of Pennsylvania Avenue memos.
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