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Philly Inquirer Says Bush Didn't Lie Because He "Likely Believed His Own Bull"

Philadelphia Inquirer
June 12, 2005 Sunday CITY-D EDITION
HEADLINE: Center Square / Why the 'Downing Street memo' hasn't rocked Bush's world
BYLINE: By Chris Satullo

To many who oppose the Iraq war, the "Downing Street memo" seemed just the dynamite needed to dislodge from office a man they love to hate, George W. Bush.

Instead, the DSM, as it's become known, has been a dud so far.

Stateside, the response to this leaked July 2002 memo, which detailed British government concerns about the White House's race to war in Iraq, has been mostly ho-hum.

The been-there-done-that response has left W.'s Teflon unnicked - and foes of the war howling. They blame the fizzling of the DSM on the MSM, the mainstream media.

American journalists, the liberal blogosphere contends, are chickens, cowed by the Bush White House, cravenly clinging to the salaries they get from corporate media.

Otherwise, the argument goes, the airwaves and front pages would be full of breathless retellings of the memo, which provides minutes of a July 23, 2002, meeting at 10 Downing Street, the office of Prime Minister Tony Blair. In the memo, among other things, an unnamed British intelligence official is quoted as opining that, in Washington, "military action was seen as inevitable" and "intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy."

I've read the memo many times now. A few observations:

First, I am surprised it hasn't gotten more coverage. It's interesting stuff, though far less momentous than overheated partisans think. (Irony alert: People hyping the memo overvalue parts of it that fit a preconceived narrative in which they are emotionally invested, while ignoring nuances, caveats and context. Sound like any President you know?)

As for the "craven media," the memo reveals nothingthat any attentive citizen who has followed the exhaustive coverage of the war in this paper, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the New Yorker, Newsweek or the Atlantic Monthly did not know long ago. Any claim that the serious American press has ignored any salient point in the memo is just poppycock.

For example, by summer 2002 it was no secret to any attentive American citizens that their leaders were spoiling for war with Iraq. The Inquirer's electronic database for summer 2002 shows 60-plus articles discussing the race toward war.

Here's why antiwar citizens are so desperate for the memo to make a dent: The plain fact is that an amazing percentage of Americans just don't care about the facts on the Iraq war. They don't care that the WMD case collapsed like the house of cards it was, that the dark talk about mushroom clouds and Saddam-Osama links was hoohah.

After Sept. 11, people were angry and they were scared. They wanted a leader who would not dither, who would just go out and kick some butt. Bush was that guy, in spades. If it turns out he kicked the wrong butt, then screwed up the aftermath to a bloody fare-thee-well, well, to many people that matters less than how he made them feel when they were reeling.

That's why he won reelection. And people who hate him hate that. Their anguish demands an outlet. And which is more tempting? Looking in the mirror to figure out why your side couldn't make the sale in 2004, or whining about the working press, which already has a huge "Kick Me" tattoo on its back?

A few more points on the memo:

Its clipped syntax, often using a vague passive voice, does not necessarily say what its more fevered interpreters think it does. It does notsay that Bush administration officials confessed to the British that they were "fixing" intelligence to fit a predetermined policy. In context, that statement seems to be a judgment offered by one British intelligence official. And it's not clear which intelligence is being cooked: Chemical weapons? Iraq-al-Qaeda ties? Nuclear weapons?

The memo observes: "The [National Security Council] had no patience with the U.N. route." People seem to miss the point here: Whatever the NSC thought, Bush did go to the United Nations to get a new resolution and to seek a return of weapons inspectors. The memo makes clear why Blair insisted Bush do all that if he wanted Britain as an ally. Remember, Bush's statecraft at the U.N. worked. Faced with a credible threat of invasion, Hussein let inspectors back in. The tragedy was that Bush refused to wait for them to prove the happy, but inconvenient fact that Iraq had no WMD.

Some claim the memo confirms that Bush's "freedom on the march" rhetoric was an ex-post-facto justification, cooked up after the WMD rationale tanked. The reverse is more likely. Post 9/11, WMD and terror became the easiest way to sell the public on a grand strategy that had been on this White House's to-do list all along.

But doesn't the memo prove the President lied? Not really. He clearly sold the war on false pretenses. But he likely believed his own bull. He did what he does in so many realms: Made policy with his gut, then heard only what he wanted to hear. Dangerous incompetence? Yes. Impeachable crimes? Don't see it.

George W. Bush's punishment should have been for voters to fire him last year. Didn't happen. The Downing Street memo, interesting as it is, can't change that.

Chris Satullo


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