Thursday, June 16, 2005

The Downing Street Memo: In search of a smoking gun

Did the Bush Administration "fix" intelligence to suit its war aims? Was Bush ever serious about diplomacy, or was war with Iraq a foregone conclusion? In short, does the DSM provide Bush's opponents with a smoking gun?

There's been a lot of hot air coming from both sides lately, but Fred Kaplan offers an excellent dissection of the DSM (and related documents) at Slate.

As one of the only sober commentaries on what has become an incredibly hot issue (some liberals are even talking impeachment -- foolishly, I might add), I think it's a must-read. As some of you know, Kaplan is generally opposed to all things pertaining to Bush's foreign policy, from Bolton to Iraq to Rumsfeld's Pentagon reforms, but he's exceptionally fair-minded here. The verdict: There's not much to the DSM that hasn't already been said by Richard Clarke, Ron Suskind, Bob Woodward, and Seymour Hersh, among others. The Bush Administration may have politicized intelligence, but they (and the British) believed what that intelligence told them. Kaplan:

Is there anything important in the Downing Street memo? This is the now-notorious secret transcript of a British ministerial meeting on July 23, 2002 -- obtained and published by the Sunday Times of London just this past May Day -- which seems to suggest that, nine months before the war in Iraq got started, the Bush administration a) knew Saddam Hussein didn't pose a threat; b) decided to overthrow him by force anyway; and c) was "fixing" intelligence to sell the impending invasion to a duped American public.

Many critics see the memo as the ultimate proof of Bush's duplicity -- and, given that no U.S. newspaper picked up the story for two weeks (and then buried it deep inside), as further evidence of the mainstream media's cravenness. Others, and not just Bush apologists, see the affair as overblown and the document's contents as no big deal...

The "killer quote" in the original Sunday Times story is this passage from the July 23 ministers' meeting: C 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.

"C" is the code name for Richard Dearlove, head of MI6, the British foreign intelligence service. His "recent talks in Washington" would almost certainly have been with his counterpart, George Tenet, then-director of the CIA. Tenet would have told him about the "perceptible shift in attitude." What accounts for it? "Bush wants to remove Saddam through military action."

This is about as solid as the evidence gets on these matters: By mid-summer 2002 -- at a time when Bush was still assuring the American public that he regarded war as a "last resort" -- the president had in fact put it on his front burners.

Okay, fine. And? What's so surprising there? More:

In other respects... the memo doesn't make as strong a case against Bush as some have claimed. Read in conjunction with the six other British documents, the case weakens further. The memos do not show, for instance, that Bush simply invented the notion that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction or that Saddam posed a threat to the region. In fact, the memos reveal quite clearly that the top leaders in the U.S. and British governments genuinely believed their claims...

The implicit point of these passages [in related documents] is this: These top officials genuinely believed that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction—and that they constituted a threat. They believed that the international community had to be sold on the matter. But not all sales pitches are consciously deceptive. The salesmen in this case turned out to be wrong; their goods were bunk. But they seemed to believe in their product at the time...

What of the second half of the key quote from the Downing Street Memo of July 23 -- that Bush wanted war, justified by WMD and terrorism, but "the intelligence and the facts were being fixed around the policy"? It's worth noting that "fixed around" is not synonymous with "fixed." To say that Bush and his aides "fixed" intelligence -- as some Web sites claim the memo shows -- would mean that they distorted or falsified it. To say "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy" means that they were viewing, sifting, and interpreting intelligence in a way that would strengthen the case for their policy, for going to war.

Either way -- "fixed" or "fixed around" -- Bush and his aides had decided to let policy shape intelligence, not the other way around; they were explicitly politicizing intelligence.

But that doesn't necessarily mean they thought their claims were false...

Again, what exactly have we learned here? Well, essentially that there isn't a smoking gun. As it turns out, based on a more careful reading of the documents in question, there really isn't much that's at all surprising. Bush was planning (even itching) to go to war even as he was talking diplomacy, even as he wasn't being straightforward with the American people. So what? Isn't that generally what "war" leaders do? It would have been foolhardly to publicize his intentions too early, and equally stupid not to start planning for war well ahead of the invasion. If anything, Bush and his inner circle were guilty of politicizing intelligence. But it's important to remember, as Kaplan notes, that they believed that Iraq possessed WMDs. And so did every other reputable intelligence service around the world.

A message to my liberal friends and readers: Look, I get it. And I'm with you. I don't like Bush either. I was a passionate Gore supporter and then a passionate Kerry supporter. And anyone who has spent any time here at The Reaction knows where I'm coming from. But let's keep this in perspective.

I supported the war, largely as a "Blair Democrat," for a number of reasons -- WMD, the ongoing threat of terrorism (even if there wasn't a connection between Iraq and 9/11), Saddam's unwillingness to abide by U.N. resolutions, and humanitarianism (let's remember that he gassed his own people) -- and I truly believed that the U.S. would do everything possible to ensure a stable transition to democracy (or to a new regime generally). Needless to say, I was wrong about that second part. The planning of the war was weak, of the aftermath horrible. The U.S. is paying the price, and Iraq remains in a suspended state of insecurity. There are increasing calls for an exit strategy, but, to me, the U.S. needs to finish the job it started. Everything possible must be done to secure peace and some semblance of a liberal democracy in Iraq. Backing out now would leave America without credibility and Iraq without hope.

(I also think it's important to keep in mind that the world (and the Middle East in particular) is much better off without Saddam in power. It's tough to say, given all the American and Iraqi casualties, but I'd rather have the uncertainty of the present situation than Saddam's ruthless brutality.)

What bothers me in the context of the DSM is that some on the left (not all, some) are using it as some sort of "smoking gun" to attack Bush. In so doing, though, they're doing just what they're accusing Bush of having done -- that is, selective reading and politicizing intelligence, all for the sake of some preconceived agenda. Many are taking a few lines of the DSM out of context to impugn the entire Iraq War. Hey, look, argue against the war and oppose Bush with as much passion as you can muster -- fine. Again, I'll be with you. But don't twist the facts to suit your own political purposes.

What I like about Kaplan's piece is that it's a liberal rebuke (of a sort) of liberalism's worst anti-Bush tendencies. We who are opposed to Bush, and to the Republican Party generally, need to offer an alternative to Bush, not merely to be anti-Bush. And we must deal with the realities of Iraq in the present, not the could-have-beens of Iraq in the past.

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