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May 29, 2005 - We Get a Close Reading of the Downing Street Memo

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In these pages, in The Smoking Gun You Have to Admire (May 8, 2005), you would find discussion of this Downing Street memo.  On May 1, Rupert Murdoch’s Times of London broke a story concerning Tony Blair and George Bush that was curious – that London paper got their hands on an odd document - a memo from the Blair and Bush discussions in the summer of 2002, some months before Colin Powell made his presentation to the UN laying out the clear evidence of the reasons the UN should join us in a war.  The memo is dated 23 July 2002 by Matthew Rycroft, a former Downing Street foreign policy aide.  It showed that the Brits understood that the Bush administration had decided to invade Iraq and toss out the government there – but Bush just hadn’t yet decided why.  The war came nine months later.

Given American politics and the current war in Iraq now being waged on its twenty-seventh premise - there being no WMD and no ties to the al Qaeda baddies there at all, and clear evidence even the powers that be knew what they were telling everyone way back when was essentially a grand fiction – you’d think this would be a bombshell.

It isn’t.  No one much cares.

David Wallace-Wells in SLATE.COM points to a new close reading of the memo that suggests that appeals to the United Nations in the buildup to the Iraq war were intended to legalize military action, not avert it - The conversion of the administration to the "U.N. route" was not, the essay argues, Colin Powell's chief political accomplishment or his most costly credibility gamble, but the predictable product of British unwillingness to cooperate in what would otherwise have been an extralegal offensive. Efforts to discredit the empty-handed inspectors, the essay suggests, were right out of Joseph Goebbels' playbook.

Oh my.  That’s odd.  And what’s this about Joseph Goebbels?

The item is by Mark Danner in the New York Review of Books, Volume 52, Number 10 - issue date: June 9, 2005 (item dated May 12, 2005) – The Secret Way to War.

It’s not much fun.

Wallace-Wells points to it.  You might read it, even if it is long, with footnotes and all, and contains the full text of the Downing Street memo.

But in short?


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.


Like you didn’t know?  This just provides documentation.

Mark Danner just pulls it all together –


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, … those on the National Security Council—the senior security officials of the US government—"had no patience with the UN route, and no enthusiasm 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.


In this reading the Brits seem to need political cover – something more then whim.  Danner points out that the British realized they needed "help with the legal justification for the use of force" because, as the attorney general pointed out, rather dryly as Danner notes, "the desire for regime change was not a legal base for military action."

No doubt the Brits were humming the old Rolling Stones tune "You Can’t Always Get What You Want" – but they changed their tune. To the Beach Boys classic - "Wouldn’t It Be Nice?"

Danner –


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. This left Security Council authorization as the only conceivable legal justification for war. But how to get it?


And that is where you might want to read this carefully.  Hans Blix has to be made a fool, and the inspections too slow, and the danger too great.  And we developed that strange position articulated so well be Donald Rumsfeld - "The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence."  And he said we knew exactly where the WMD were anyway – in and around Tekrit – but really that they couldn’t be found only increased the danger.

And we bought that.  Well, many did.  Who are you going to trust?

The joke is the war had to be waged – because the new concept was finding the WMD proved we had to invade and occupy Iraq, and not finding them meant we had to invade and occupy Iraq.  No choice.

Danner lays this and more out in much more detail – so you might want to read the whole thing.

He also cites New York Times Sunday magazine item Without a Doubt by Ron Suskind (October 17, 2004) - a discussion of how George Bush makes decisions.


… In the summer of 2002, after I had written an article in Esquire that the White House didn't like about Bush's former communications director, Karen Hughes, I had a meeting with a senior adviser to Bush. He expressed the White House's displeasure, and then he told me something that at the time I didn't fully comprehend -- but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency.

The aide said that guys like me were ''in what we call the reality-based community,'' which he defined as people who ''believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.'' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ''That's not the way the world really works anymore,'' he continued. ''We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.''


And he parses the Suskind this way –


Though this seems on its face to be a disquisition on religion and faith, it is of course an argument about power, and its influence on truth. Power, the argument runs, can shape truth: power, in the end, can determine reality, or at least the reality that most people accept - a critical point, for the administration has been singularly effective in its recognition that what is most politically important is not what readers of The New York Times believe but what most Americans are willing to believe.

The last century's most innovative authority on power and truth, Joseph Goebbels, made the same point but rather more directly: There was no point in seeking to convert the intellectuals. For intellectuals would never be converted and would anyway always yield to the stronger, and this will always be "the man in the street." Arguments must therefore be crude, clear and forcible, and appeal to emotions and instincts, not the intellect. Truth was unimportant and entirely subordinate to tactics and psychology.


We were had.

Of course there has been little coverage of the memo.


The war continues, and Americans have grown weary of it; few seem much interested now in discussing how it began, and why their country came to fight a war in the cause of destroying weapons that turned out not to exist. For those who want answers, the Bush administration has followed a simple and heretofore largely successful policy: blame the intelligence agencies. Since "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy" as early as July 2002 (as "C," the head of British intelligence, reported upon his return from Washington), it seems a matter of remarkable hubris, even for this administration, that its officials now explain their misjudgments in going to war by blaming them on "intelligence failures"—that is, on the intelligence that they themselves politicized. Still, for the most part, Congress has cooperated. Though the Senate Intelligence Committee investigated the failures of the CIA and other agencies before the war, a promised second report that was to take up the administration's political use of intelligence—which is, after all, the critical issue—was postponed until after the 2004 elections, then quietly abandoned.

In the end, the Downing Street memo, and Americans' lack of interest in what it shows, has to do with a certain attitude about facts, or rather about where the line should be drawn between facts and political opinion.


Facts?  Who needs them?  We’re there and we need to clean things up.

And we don’t want to think about it.  Call it salvaging self-respect (see this from late February).  Or call it cognitive dissonance (see this from last October).

Doesn’t matter.  What do we do now?


Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
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