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A Fix on Downing Street

From the June 20, 2005 issue: About that supposed smoking-gun memo.

Jun 20, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 38 • By TOD LINDBERG
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C reported on his recent talks in Washington. There was a perceptible shift in attitude. 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, and no enthusiasm for publishing material on the Iraqi regime's record. There was little discussion in Washington of the aftermath after military action.

The point is that the Bush administration seems bent on going to war based on the terrorism/WMD case without going to the U.N. (thus obtaining a legal justification in the Security Council--a point on which C turned out to be wrong) and without "publishing materialon the Iraqi regime's record" (thus making a humanitarian case--which Blair would subsequently emphasize). The "policy" decision was that the case was going to be made on the basis of terrorism/WMD, with the evidence "fixed"--made fast, set in order, arranged--to buttress that case, notwithstanding that, in the view of some present, other cases might be stronger (hence Straw's point about Libya, North Korea, and Iran).

It's striking that the Times's story hyping the memo makes no mention of the "fixed" passage until roughly its 26th paragraph, where the term goes unremarked. Far be it from me to suggest that the Brits have done a better job as custodians of the English language than Americans. But the Brits do at least know how they speak it.

As far as the "inevitable" charge goes, we have been down this road over and over again. It's a pity C didn't tell the Quai d'Orsay about his conclusions that summer. The semi-official line from the French foreign ministry is that officials there didn't conclude the war was inevitable until January 2003. Yes, some in the Bush administration thought from early on that war would be the only way to take care of the Saddam problem. But the decision isn't made until the president says he has decided. That's what makes it a decision.

If you really want to find something scandalous in the "Downing Street Memo," you might focus on the line, "There was little discussion in Washington of the aftermath after military action." The Bush administration might have benefited from a little prodding from 10 Downing on that point.

At the Bush-Blair press briefing last week, a Reuters correspondent did ask the two about the memo--without consequential result. But the good ol' "mainstream media" had it about right in concluding that there is nothing in the document but more proof for partisans already persuaded.

Contributing editor Tod Lindberg is a fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and editor of Policy Review.