Politics & Policy

No News Is News

Another day, another document drop.

On the heels of the Downing Street Memo, the July 2002 minutes of a British cabinet meeting that some see as grounds for President Bush’s impeachment, six more documents have come to light from across the pond that give insights into prewar perceptions, plans, and politics. Like the Downing Street Memo, the new documents are all smoke no gun.

I will sidestep for now the question of the strange provenance of the documents, a matter covered extensively elsewhere. One would think that in the wake of Rathergate, journalist Michael Smith would be careful to ensure the integrity of his source documents, not destroy them before anyone saw them. One is also struck by the peculiar symmetry–in the first case, supposedly old documents were produced on a contemporary word processor. In this instance, purportedly recent documents were reproduced on an old typewriter. Very odd. At any rate I do not believe that these documents are fake because they are even less sensational than the original “smoking gun,” and one would think a forger would give the critics something a little more substantial to hang their conspiracies on.

Where Were You in 2002?

The documents seem to show very accurately the state of play a year before Operation Iraqi Freedom began, when the policies were in their formative stages. Much of what is in the documents played out over the following months in a straightforward way. My favorite of the new batch is the ten page March 8, 2002, Iraq Options Paper that laid out an analytical case for regime change by force. Note that aspects of it are similar in content to a five-part series on Iraq I published in NRO in February 2002–not to claim any prescience on my part, just to point out that anyone who today is surprised by the contents of the Options Paper simply was not paying attention two years ago.

The study acknowledges that “intelligence is poor” about Saddam’s WMD program, but also concludes that the regime “continues to develop weapons of mass destruction.” It covers various options for bringing about regime change, such as continuing or intensifying sanctions, and initiating covert operations, both of which were attempted before the ultimate resort to overt force. With respect to war the study concludes, “Despite the considerable difficulties, the use of overriding force in a ground campaign is the only option that we can be confident will remove Saddam and bring Iraq back in the international community.” Therefore, four months before the so-called “smoking gun” memo that some say proves that President Bush was fixated on war, British analysts had concluded that war was the best option for regime change. Puts it all in perspective doesn’t it?

The Options Paper also noted the problem of the legal justification for war, and recommended what was ultimately done, using the U.N. inspection process to force that side of the issue. “Stricter implementation of sanctions and a military build-up will frighten [Saddam’s] regime,” the paper says. “A failure to admit UN inspectors, or their admission and likely subsequent frustration, which resulted in an appropriate finding by the Security Council, could provide the justification for military action.” Sounds strangely familiar.

An eight-page legal analysis of the basis for conflict written the same day is a detailed review of the available tools at the Coalition’s disposal to justify intervention. It even mentions the “oil for food enforcement” rationale, which had been one of my favorites four months earlier. This document was superseded when the Security Council unanimously adopted UNSCR 1441, which found Iraq in material breach of earlier resolutions and threatened “serious consequences” for further noncompliance, interpreted to be code for military action. But the legal analysis is an interesting historical document, laying out the relevant resolutions as of March 2002, and demonstrating that the Coalition took the legal dimension seriously, despite what critics may have alleged later.

The brief report by foreign-policy adviser David Manning dated March 14, 2002, on his dinner with then National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice has been noted because of Manning’s statement that Rice’s enthusiasm for regime change in Iraq was “undimmed.” Perhaps it was, but so for that matter was Colin Powell’s, who had stated a month before, “With respect to Iraq, it has long been, for several years now, a policy of the United States government that regime change would be in the best interests of the region, the best interests of the Iraqi people. And we are looking at a variety of options that would bring that about.” Prime Minister Blair had by then signed on to regime change as a policy goal, and in fact, hardly anyone opposed it. The debate was over the means of bringing regime change about, not whether Saddam should go. The memo is also noteworthy for raising issues such as the possibility of bloody urban combat in Iraq, a heroic stand by the Republican Guard, and a meltdown in Israel, none of which happened.

9/11 and the End of Tolerance

Manning advised Blair to use the Iraq issue as leverage to revive the Middle East Peace Process (MEPP). This was echoed by British ambassador to the U.S. Christopher Meyer in reporting a lunch with Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz. Meyer noted the need to “wrongfoot Saddam on the inspectors,” but Wolfowitz insisted on emphasizing the moral dimension of the case against the regime. “It was extraordinary how people had forgotten how bad he was,” Meyer noted. Wolfowitz has repeated this theme in speeches since the war, and it is unfortunate it was not stressed more firmly beforehand. Wolfowitz discussed this in the May 2003 Vanity Fair interview, in which he said that the decision to place the WMD issue at the forefront was mainly political. “The truth is that for reasons that have a lot to do with the U.S. government bureaucracy we settled on the one issue that everyone could agree on which was weapons of mass destruction as the core reason,” he said. It was not that the other major issues, such as links to terrorism, international aggression, and human-rights violations were invalid, but that for political and to an extent legal reasons, WMDs seemed to have the best chance of making the case. Perhaps so, but the justification has not proven to be durable, and even today the failure to unearth nuclear weapons is a bigger headline than the periodic and persistent discovery of mass graves of Saddam’s victims.

Political adviser Peter Ricketts’s March 22, 2002, memo to the prime minister has yielded the presidents’ critics several presumably damning snippets about the sense at the time that Saddam’s WMD program had not advanced much. They tend to ignore the most salient line in the memo, “The truth is that what has changed is not the pace of Saddam Hussein’s WMD programmes, but our tolerance of them post 11-September.” This shift in perception is a significant point, probably the most important effect of the 9/11 attacks. Deputy Secretary Wolfowitz touched on it in the above noted Vanity Fair interview, and Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas J. Feith discussed it at length in his April 14, 2004 speech at the University of Chicago. More to the point President Bush made it plain in his January 29, 2002, State of the Union address when he stated, “The United States of America will not permit the world’s most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world’s most destructive weapons.” This shows clearly the tectonic shift; risks previously thought acceptable were tolerable no longer. Actions that might have seemed disproportionate pre-9/11 became not only appropriate, but obligatory.

Foreign Secretary Jack Straw made the same point. “If 11 September had not happened,” he wrote in a March 25 letter to the prime minister, “it is doubtful the US would now be considering military action against Iraq.” (Just as an aside, doesn’t this clear the president of the charge that he had wanted to go to war with Iraq from his first days in office?) Straw continued that while the objective terms of the threat had not changed, our threat tolerance was much lower, “the world having witnessed on September 11 just what determined evil people can these days perpetrate.” Straw’s memo also discusses the need for the legal case that was eventually made. Moreover, he like others ponders what may come after regime change, noting that Iraq had “NO history of democracy so no-one has this habit or experience.” Some have taken statements in these new documents to prove that there was no planning for the post-war situation in Iraq, but note that the actual war planning had only recently begun in earnest by this time so it was a bit early in the game to expect that the post-war arrangements had already been worked out.

These six new documents, if genuine, contribute some useful details for students of national security decision making, but are hardly meat for scandal. They show policymakers doing their jobs, discussing objectives, reviewing options for pursuing them, positing potential difficulties and means of overcoming them. They show some personal and institutional differences, but in the end the policy coalesced and events played themselves out pretty much as predicted. I do not understand why Michael Smith would take such unusual precautions with these documents, or why his source thought they were momentous enough to be leaked. They are interesting, no doubt. But people seeking some sort of nefarious plot in the run-up to the Iraq war will have to keep looking.

James S. Robbins is senior fellow in national-security affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council and an NRO contributor.

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