After missing out yesterday, when the Times of London and Washington Post ran stories, The New York Times put a story on page A10 about the memo revealing the lack of U.S. post-war planning for Iraq. (The online version of the story bears the somewhat nonsensical headline “Prewar British memo says war decision wasn’t made.”)
The placement is fine for such a story — in comparison with the Post, which put a similar one its front page, apparently overreacting in shame to missing the original memo months ago — but disappointing in that this is the story the Times chose to run. The Times of London, by contrast, noted that British government ministers were obliged to create a war.
“The US Government’s military planning for action against Iraq is proceeding apace. But, as yet, it lacks a political framework,” says the July 21, 2002, memo, actually a briefing paper to get government officials up to speed before they met to discuss Iraq.
The notes assume Iraq has weapons of mass destruction, but also that Saddam Hussein would block United Nations weapons inspectors from doing their job, providing a pretext for an invasion. Here’s some excerpts:
US military planning unambiguously takes as its objective the removal of Saddam Hussein’s regime, followed by elimination if Iraqi WMD. It is however, by no means certain, in the view of UK officials, that one would necessarily follow from the other. Even if regime change is a necessary condition for controlling Iraqi WMD, it is certainly not a sufficient one.
Regime change per se is not a proper basis for military action under international law. But regime change could result from action that is otherwise lawful. We would regard the use of force against Iraq, or any other state, as lawful if exercised in the right of individual or collective self-defence, if carried out to avert an overwhelming humanitarian catastrophe, or authorised by the UN Security Council.
In practice, facing pressure of military action, Saddam is likely to admit weapons inspectors as a means of forestalling it. But once admitted, he would not allow them to operate freely. UNMOVIC (the successor to UNSCOM) will take at least six months after entering Iraq to establish the monitoring and verification system under Resolution 1284 necessary to assess whether Iraq is meeting its obligations. Hence, even if UN inspectors gained access today, by January 2003 they would at best only just be completing setting up. It is possible that they will encounter Iraqi obstruction during this period, but this more likely when they are fully operational.
It is just possible that an ultimatum could be cast in terms which Saddam would reject (because he is unwilling to accept unfettered access) and which would not be regarded as unreasonable by the international community. However, failing that (or an Iraqi attack) we would be most unlikely to achieve a legal base for military action by January 2003.
Hussein frustrated war planning by complying with weapons inspectors, of course, but the more important point is what immediately followed this memo: a meeting of those government officials for whom it was prepared. It is the minutes of that meeting, from July 23, 2002, in which intelligence chief Sir Richard Dearlove speaks of his trip to Washington, D.C., and confirms what’s implicit in the first memo: that “the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.”
This is what’s being derided by John Fund, of The Wall Street Journal, and Michael Kinsley, of the Los Angeles Times. Fund, oddly, knocks it for being “three years old,” even though the whole point of bringing the memos to light is to show the official thinking long before the invasion of Iraq — even before any data justifying an attack. Kinsley, nearly smothering under the weight of his own cleverness, dismisses the memo as being obvious and unimportant.
Even on its face, the memo is not proof that Bush had decided on war. It states that war is “now seen as inevitable” by “Washington.” That is, people other than Bush had concluded, based on observation, that he was determined to go to war. There is no claim of even fourth-hand knowledge that he had actually declared this intention. Even if “Washington” meant administration decision-makers, rather than the usual freelance chatterboxes, [Dearlove] was only saying that these people believed that war was how events would play out.
This is ridiculous. Kinsley is implying that the chief of British intelligence went to Washington, D.C., and spoke with “freelance chatterboxes” rather than the U.S. government in preparation for briefing fellow government ministers on a war they were clearly expecting to fight. This theory not only makes no sense, but is betrayed by the very context of the memos Kinsley so airily dismisses.
The entire world got to watch the U.S. arguments for invading Iraq fall apart, leaving only a bid for regime change that is, as the July 21 memo says, “not a proper basis for military action under international law.” Now we’re privy to secret memos showing how the United States, aided by the United Kingdom, conned the United Nations and the world into achieving its objectives.
“Is it the smoking gun?” Fund asks. “Don’t make me laugh.”
It’s understandable friends of the Bush administration wouldn’t be laughing; three years old and all, the memo’s pretty bloody close to a smoking gun — one shooting holes in the U.S. cover story for a war, revealing the violation of international law behind it.