- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 23, 2005

Certain Democrats, especially Rep. John Conyers, are frustrated that the leaked “Downing Street Memos” aren’t receiving more media attention. This is particularly grating for them, because they believe that one memo — which is a summary of a British ministerial meeting on July 23, 2002 — is a “smoking-gun” case for President Bush’s impeachment. At the very least, they say, taken together these memos present clear evidence that the president and his top deputies lied to the American people in making the case for war against Iraq.

If it sounds like we’ve covered this ground before, it’s because we have. The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence last year found no evidence that Mr. Bush or his top advisers, such as Vice President Dick Cheney, pressured the intelligence community to make the case for war. A separate British inquiry absolved Prime Minister Tony Blair of similar charges. Still, the “Bush Lied” argument refuses to die in certain circles on the left, and now they have primary documents to prove it — or so they would have us think.

Here’s the passage from the July 2002 memo that Mr. Conyers cites as irrefutable evidence:

“[Richard Dearlove, head of British intelligence] 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.”

What is it that we learn here which we didn’t already know? It’s been clear for some time that the Bush administration was preparing to remove Saddam Hussein by force soon after September 11. Indeed, regime change was U.S. policy under the Clinton administration. Mr. Conyers and others argue that Mr. Bush’s public words masked his true intentions as revealed in the above passage. This could be true, but so what? Despite what he thought in private, the president still exhausted all available options in public. Mr. Blair, for better or worse, convinced Mr. Bush to take the matter to the United Nations, which he did — twice.

But what of the “intelligence and facts” that “were being fixed around the policy”? There is a dispute as to what “fixed around” really means in British English, but one doesn’t need to go to those lengths. To make the case that this sentence says something sinister about the administration, one must first make the case that the British didn’t believe Saddam had a WMD program. It would be a neat trick if Mr. Conyers could prove that, since no one, especially the British, thought this.

A March 2002 memo analyzing the case for regime change concludes that Iraq “continues to develop weapons of mass destruction.” That memo further advises that “the use of overriding force … is the only option we can be confident will remove Saddam.” But it’s not as if we’re just learning this now.

So, not only did British intelligence accept the Bush administration’s case against Saddam four months before the memo, but it also agreed that war was the only effective solution. And remember who supposedly said “fixed around”: Mr. Dearlove, head of British intelligence, whose agency months later released a white paper documenting Iraq’s weapons programs. Reread with that kind of perspective, all this sentence seems to suggest is that the Bush administration was building a case for war by focusing on its intelligence about Saddam’s WMD program.

None of this is to say that the memos don’t hold valuable lessons. The British were clearly wary of following the United States into Iraq. One memo asks the question plaguing us today: “what happens the morning after?” A July 21 memo worries that “a post-war occupation of Iraq could lead to a protracted and costly nation-building exercise.” It adds, “U.S. military plans are virtually silent on this point.”

But they followed us anyway, because, as another memo states, what has changed “is not so much the pace of Saddam Hussein’s WMD programmes, but our tolerance of them post-11 September.” Like the United States, in the final analysis the British understood that the cost of doing nothing would be too great to bear.

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