By: William E. Jackson, Jr.
The Washington Post editorial page has tried to throw cold water on the significance of the so-called Downing Street memos. But in a Page One article in The Post today (“From Memos, Insights Into Ally’s Doubts On Iraq War: Blair’s Advisers Foresaw Variety of Risks, Problems”) — filed from London by Glenn Frankel, and contributed to by Walter Pincus in Washington — the paper provides further evidence for both the authenticity of the Downing Street Memos and the centrality of their role in British decision-making leading up to war.
Eight secret documents first disclosed by Sunday Times reporter Michael Smith, new interviews conducted by Post reporters, and additional written accounts together reveal that behind the scenes, British government officials at the highest levels believed in 2002 that the Bush Administration was already committed to a war that they thought was ill-conceived and illegal and could lead to disaster.
Officials foresaw a host of problems that later would surface following the 2003 invasion and occupation. But they could dissuade neither their American counterparts nor their own leader from moving toward war.
A U.S. official with inside knowledge of events told The Post that the concerns raised by British officials back then “played a useful role.” Speaking anonymously, the policymaker added: “Were they paid a tremendous amount of heed? I think it’s hard to say they were.” An Administration observer somewhat cynically described to The Post the role-playing pigeonhole assigned by the Americans to top British officials: “I’m not saying they were sanguine — they weren’t — but since time immemorial they have always played Athens to our Rome, working hard to remove us from a tendency toward what they consider impetuosity or misguided idealism.”
Critics of the Bush White House have argued that the Downing Street cabinet documents constitute proof, a sort of smoking gun, that the American president made the decision to go to war approximately a year before it began. Moreover, they contend that allied diplomacy at the United Nations in the fall and winter of 2002 was a charade, designed to persuade the public that war was necessary, rather than a genuine attempt to resolve the crisis
short of war. Going to war was not “the last resort.”
According to the memoirs of former foreign secretary Robin Cook as cited by The Post, the first major Downing Street discussion on Iraq took place March 7, 2002 — a month before Prime Minister Blair met with President Bush in Crawford, Texas. He quotes several senior cabinet secretaries as raising questions about the war. “What has changed that suddenly gives us the legal right to take military action that we didn’t have a few months ago?” one participant had demanded. Blair defended his approach, Cook records: “I tell you that we must steer close to America. If we don’t, we lose our influence to shape what they do.”
A senior Brit official candidly told The Post: “In the end, only Blair and Bush know what they said to each other at Crawford and what they agreed to. They spent a long time together with no one else around, which was most unusual.”
Six of the Downing Street memos were composed between the March 7 cabinet meeting and the Crawford summit. Foreign Secretary Straw, in his own brief to Blair, laid out the political problems in convincing members of Parliament that the use of force was warranted. Even after legal justification, Straw wrote, “We have also to answer the big question — what will this action achieve? There seems to be a larger hole on this than on
Straw also presciently warned in a memo to Blair stamped Secret and Personal: “The rewards from your visit to Crawford will be few. The risks are high, both for you and for the Government.”
By the early summer of 2002, due to a new sense of alarm in London, British sources told The Post that several senior officials were dispatched to the United States for consultations. When they returned to London, a meeting was scheduled that produced the two most publicized of the secret documents. The first was a Cabinet Office briefing paper dated July 21 that expressed
concern that stepped-up U.S. air raids inside Iraq created “the risk that military action is precipitated in an unplanned way.”
On July 23, the equivalent of a war cabinet met in the P.M.’s office.
According to the minutes, American “military action was now seen as inevitable?; the National Security Council “had no patience with the U.N. route.” And there was the now-famous observation that “the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy” in Washington.
Nevertheless, Straw urged his government to produce a plan for an ultimatum to allow U.N. weapons inspectors to return to Iraq to look for weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Blair himself was credited with saying that “it would make a big difference politically and legally if Saddam refused to allow in the U.N. inspectors.” In the end, Saddam did let in the inspectors, who found nothing, before their mission was aborted — by the start of the war.
The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq began on March 20, 2003. The Post reports that today “many inside the British policy establishment still feel angry and bruised” about the invasion and the occupation aftermath. The leak of the documents shows the depth of those feelings.
When will “The Iraq War Papers” of the Bush cabinet seep out, one wonders?