When The Guardian reported last February about another Downing Street memo in which President Bush suggested luring Saddam Hussein into war by “flying U2 reconnaissance aircraft planes with fighter cover over Iraq, painted in UN colours,” there was much scoffing and hoo-hawing from the Right.
But today the New York Times reveals that the memo is real. Don Van Natta reports,
During a private two-hour meeting in the Oval Office on Jan. 31, 2003, he [Bush] made clear to Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain that he was determined to invade Iraq without the second [UN] resolution, or even if international arms inspectors failed to find unconventional weapons, said a confidential memo about the meeting written by Mr. Blair’s top foreign policy adviser and reviewed by The New York Times.
“Our diplomatic strategy had to be arranged around the military planning,” David Manning, Mr. Blair’s chief foreign policy adviser at the time, wrote in the memo that summarized the discussion between Mr. Bush, Mr. Blair and six of their top aides. …
… Stamped “extremely sensitive,” the five-page memorandum, which was circulated among a handful of Mr. Blair’s most senior aides, had not been made public. Several highlights were first published in January in the book “Lawless World,” which was written by a British lawyer and international law professor, Philippe Sands. In early February, Channel 4 in London first broadcast several excerpts from the memo.
Since then, The New York Times has reviewed the five-page memo in its entirety. While the president’s sentiments about invading Iraq were known at the time, the previously unreported material offers an unfiltered view of two leaders on the brink of war, yet supremely confident.
The memo indicates the two leaders envisioned a quick victory and a transition to a new Iraqi government that would be complicated, but manageable. Mr. Bush predicted that it was “unlikely there would be internecine warfare between the different religious and ethnic groups.” Mr. Blair agreed with that assessment.
The memo also shows that the president and the prime minister acknowledged that no unconventional weapons had been found inside Iraq. Faced with the possibility of not finding any before the planned invasion, Mr. Bush talked about several ways to provoke a confrontation, including a proposal to paint a United States surveillance plane in the colors of the United Nations in hopes of drawing fire, or assassinating Mr. Hussein. …
… Two senior British officials confirmed the authenticity of the memo, but declined to talk further about it, citing Britain’s Official Secrets Act, which made it illegal to divulge classified information.
Along with the U2 reconnaissance aircraft idea, attributed to Bush, the memos reveal Bush made two other suggestions: Finding a defector who would talk publicly about Saddam’s WMDs, and assassinating Saddam.
One quibble I have with the Times story is this:
By late January 2003, United Nations inspectors had spent six weeks in Iraq hunting for weapons under the auspices of Security Council Resolution 1441, which authorized “serious consequences” if Iraq voluntarily failed to disarm. Led by Hans Blix, the inspectors had reported little cooperation from Mr. Hussein, and no success finding any unconventional weapons.
In late January 2003 Hans Blix reported to the UN Security Council:
Iraq has on the whole cooperated rather well so far with UNMOVIC in this field. The most important point to make is that access has been provided to all sites we have wanted to inspect and with one exception it has been prompt. We have further had great help in building up the infrastructure of our office in Baghdad and the field office in Mosul. Arrangements and services for our plane and our helicopters have been good. The environment has been workable.
The inspection process was not without problems —
While we now have the technical capability to send a U-2 plane placed at our disposal for aerial imagery and for surveillance during inspections and have informed Iraq that we planned to do so, Iraq has refused to guarantee its safety, unless a number of conditions are fulfilled. As these conditions went beyond what is stipulated in resolution 1441 (2002) and what was practiced by UNSCOM and Iraq in the past, we note that Iraq is not so far complying with our request. I hope this attitude will change.
Is this what put U-2 planes in Dear Leader’s head? The Blix report is dated January 27, 2003. The Downing Street memo under discussion was dated January 31, 2003. Hmmm.
For all the world like a latter day Gen. Jack Ripper as depicted in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, Bush was going to fly a US spy plane over Iraq painted in UN colors, in hopes Saddam would have it shot down, so as to provoke a war (and ‘protect our precious bodily fluids?’). This crackpot idea suggests the truth of the rumors that Bush never really did give up drinking heavily (or maybe it can only be explained by doing lines). Its context is explained by a kind reader who wrote in about my initial puzzlement to say:
‘ The Bush administration did get Saddam to agree to allow U2 flyovers under the nominal control of UNMOVIC in February. It seems likely that they expected Saddam to refuse, thus provide a suitable excuse for war. When he didn’t, they upped the ante by sending two at once in mid-March. The Iraqis still refused to shoot at them and instead complained through official channels.’
Update: Historical revisionism per Captain Ed —
By the time Bush met Blair at the White House, Hans Blix had reported that the Iraqis would not cooperate with the inspections, only paying lip service to the inspectors.
Already debunked, above. Blix reported some problems, but it was far from the truth to say that Iraqis “would not cooperate.”
Now, thanks to captured notes of Iraqi meetings, we know that Saddam remained confident that his bribery of France and Russia (as well as their well-known economic interest in maintaining their contracts with the Saddam regime) would result in a stalemate at the Security Council over any resolution opening military force as a consequence of failure. That may be why France practically begged Blair at that moment not to pursue a “second resolution” (actually a 17th); they assured both the US and the UK that the previous sixteen resolutions gave plenty of cause for action, but that France would find it politically impossible to vote for explicit military action against Iraq.
Ed, dear, the whole point of Bush’s and Blair’s conversation was to find a way either to force the UN’s hand in spite of the Security Council’s reluctance to issue a second resolution or to establish “cover” to make the invasion seem more legitimate without a second UN resolution. If anything, your “objection” underscores the importance of the January 31 memo.
By this time, had the US not had a plan for military action against Iraq, it would have been almost criminally neglectful. Why should it surprise anyone that two nations that faced war with Saddam Hussein would discuss the military strategy involved in that war?
This amounts to a stubborn determination not to see the point. Richard of the Peking Duck gets it —
In ordinary times, it would be a bombshell: A secret memo proves that our president told his people a series of lies leading to wanton and needless death and destruction. He had planned to wage his war no matter what, and was even prepared to create fake evidence to justify the invasion. It was never about unconventional weapons. The calls to disarm were bogus. It was to be war from day one. In ordinary times, he’d be impeached.
But these aren’t ordinary times. We are all so used to this sort of thing that it has almost no effect at all. It’s just another day in the Age of Bush, where we’re always winning the war and we’re always right and no mistakes are ever made. Here’s the killer line (though actually there are several):
The memo also shows that the president and the prime minister acknowledged that no unconventional weapons had been found inside Iraq. Faced with the possibility of not finding any before the planned invasion, Mr. Bush talked about several ways to provoke a confrontation, including a proposal to paint a United States surveillance plane in the colors of the United Nations in hopes of drawing fire, or assassinating Mr. Hussein.
Now, faking scenarios in order to provoke another country into war is just what Hitler did with Poland, and is about the lowliest thing a government could do. It an act of pure deception and reveals total disrespect for the American people, playing them for fools. That he would have seriously proposed this should be major news. But I doubt it will be. We expect no better of him. And so, what would have been a death knell for Clinton will be water off a duck’s back for Bush. We’re too numb, too incredulous and dazed to care.
Or too drunk on Kool-Aid.
Update update: See also Tom Tomorrow.