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BRITISH MEMO NOTICED WHAT WAS MISSING


The Oregonian (Portland, Oregon)
June 17, 2005 Friday
SUNRISE EDITION
SECTION: EDITORIAL; Pg. D09
LENGTH: 731 words
HEADLINE: BRITISH MEMO NOTICED WHAT WAS MISSING
BYLINE: DAVID SARASOHN - The Oregonian
BODY:
After weeks of ignoring the existence of the Downing Street memo -- the July 2002 minutes of a high-level British meeting reporting that the Bush administration had already decided on war and was shaping the intelligence around its goal -- major media outlets have now gotten to the second phase of coverage:

They knew it all the time.

Nothing happening here, move along.

The current round -- including newspapers, such as The New York Times and The Washington Post, which months ago apologized for the inadequacy and overcredulousness of their coverage of the war's origins -- declares that even though the Bush administration was publicly claiming it hoped to avoid war, everybody at the time knew the United States was going to attack Iraq.

And whatsamatter, you can't take a joke?

But whatever the Downing Street memo, and related documents, usefully tell us about the decision to go to war -- and several newspaper voices, and the Associated Press, now agree the story was mishandled -- there's a whole other message coming from the memos:

The British not only knew war in Iraq was coming. They knew our current disaster in Iraq was coming.

The memo, after noting the Bush administration was set on war, pointed out, "There was little discussion in Washington of the aftermath after military action."

Mostly, you may remember, the concern was about how to keep U.S. troops from getting overwhelmed by all the candy and flowers from grateful Iraqis.

Last week, Walter Pincus of The Washington Post wrote about another British memo, a briefing paper prepared two days in advance of the first meeting, titled "Iraq: Conditions for Military Action." In it, British officials warned, "A post-war occupation of Iraq could lead to a protracted and costly nation-building exercise. As already made clear, the U.S. military plans are virtually silent on this point. . . ."

Pincus cites other British memos to Prime Minister Tony Blair, from his top foreign policy adviser and from Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, warning that the Bush administration hadn't figured out just how it was going to make postwar Iraq turn out right.

A year later, when the United States attacked Iraq, the Bush administration still hadn't figured it out. When U.S. forces were insufficient to prevent looting of both government offices and weapons stores, the administration shrugged it off. A few months into the occupation, U.S. proconsul Paul Bremer dissolved the Iraqi army, now universally considered a disastrous move that weakened order and bolstered the insurgency.

It's the kind of thing you'd hope was thought about beforehand. But as the British suspected early on, the postwar was just not being thought through. It might have undermined the insistence that American troops would be greeted as liberators.

When problems developed, the easiest strategy was to ignore them. In September 2003, Richard Perle, a close foreign policy adviser to the administration, pronounced, "A year from now, I'll be very surprised if there is not some grand square in Baghdad that is named after President Bush. There is no doubt that, with the exception of a very small number of people close to a vicious regime, the people of Iraq have been liberated and they understand that they've been liberated. . . ."

What they don't understand is why they can't walk through their streets.

This week, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld -- speaking to the British, on the BBC -- insisted that things were getting better in Iraq. Asked if the security situation had improved, he admitted, "Statistically, no."

But then Rumsfeld pointed out -- in his own kind of relentless optimism -- that "A lot of bad things that could have happened have not happened."

Presumably, the engraving on that statue, if it existed, would be, "Could have been worse."

But you'd have to think that, even with an administration determined to go to war, some realistic assessments and strategy about what would happen afterward could have made things turn out better.

The Downing Street memo, despite the major efforts to dismiss it, does raise questions about just how the decision on the war got made.

But it -- and a sheaf of similar documents -- also raise painful questions about a lot of decisions on the postwar that somehow never got made at all.

David Sarasohn, associate editor of The Oregonian, can be reached at 503-221-8523 or davidsarasohn@news.oregonian.com.

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