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Minneapolis Star-Tribune Editorial


Fig leaf for war/Paper indicates U.N. was misled
June 15, 2005

Let's go back to 2002 and think about what the American people hoped for in Iraq. Such a review provides context to the latest British document leaked to the press and leads inevitably to the conclusion that both the British and American people were grossly misled.

The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were still fresh in American minds. The war in Afghanistan was underway. President Bush started early in the year talking about the need to eliminate Iraq's biological and chemical weapons, and end its efforts to rebuild its nuclear weapons program. The possible need for an invasion was openly discussed, and drew harsh opposition from Europe and the Arab world.

As the year progressed, more and more emphasis was placed on action by the U.N. Security Council to force Iraq to accept a new, stringent weapons-inspection regime and to authorize force if Iraq did not comply. In September, Bush gave a compelling speech to the U.N. General Assembly in which he urged the United Nations to act and warned that if it did not, the United States would.

It's safe to say that most Americans viewed the American-British approach to the United Nations as an alternative to war -- perhaps forced on a reluctant American administration by British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Secretary of State Colin Powell, but still a legitimate alternative. Bush's bellicosity even seemed to serve a "bad cop" function in pushing Iraq to cooperate with the United Nations.

Now comes, however, a classified briefing paper prepared for a July 23, 2002, British cabinet meeting, the minutes of which have come to be known as the Downing Street memo. The briefing paper makes clear that both the British and American administrations viewed action by the Security Council not as an alternative to war, but as a means of justifying a war already decided on.

It observes that U.S. "military planning for action against Iraq is proceeding apace." But, it says, "little thought has been given to creating the political conditions for military action, or the aftermath and how to shape it."

Lack of U.S. planning for the aftermath of war is now quite evident to the American public. Even before the war, experts were warning (as in this memo) that the Pentagon had little inkling of what it was getting into. Nonetheless, all the advance planning that had been done at the State Department was thrown overboard, and the clueless Pentagon was given sole jurisdiction over postwar Iraq, a decision that left British officials "aghast," according to one leaked document.

But more important here is the use of the United Nations to fashion a rationale for war. The British briefing paper says that when Blair met Bush at his ranch in Texas, in April 2002, Blair said "the UK would support military action to bring about regime change...." But in order to do that, the paper continues, it "is necessary to create the conditions in which we could legally support military action."

The paper goes on to explain that "Regime change per se is not a proper basis for military action under international law." But it would be lawful if "authorized by the U.N. Security Council." It goes on to say that this is the preferable route, provided the Security Council does not allow the weapons-inspections process to continue indefinitely.

This is where the plot really thickens. Perhaps readers will recall that Bush's nominee for U.N. ambassador, John Bolton, recently was accused of orchestrating the 2002 ouster of Jose Bustani, head of the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons, a U.N. agency. Why did Bolton want Bustani replaced? Because Bustani was aggressively seeking to reinsert chemical weapons inspectors into Iraq. The conclusion of many observers is that the United States did not want inspectors in Iraq because it undercut the U.S. case for an invasion.

Many Bush critics accused him of "using" the United Nations to justify war, rather than truly working to avoid military conflict. But they were naturally suspect because they oppose U.S. policy. The British briefing paper is especially significant because it comes from a government that is not only astute, but is also quite friendly to Bush's objective of invading Iraq. The unavoidable conclusion is that both British and American citizens were duped into hoping that the United Nations would make such a conflict unnecessary. In fact, Britain eagerly and the United States reluctantly went to the United Nations to get a fig leaf of respectability for a war on which they had already decided.

In the end, the Security Council refused to play its role, arguing that the weapons inspectors needed more time (actually ample time) to complete their mission. Then the United States threw up its hands, branded Security Council members a bunch of hand-wringing pansies, and went to war. As the British briefing paper makes clear, that was pre-ordained.

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