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What to Make of a Memo
Wednesday, June 22, 2005 - Bangor Daily News
"Our goal is not merely to limit Iraq's violations of Security Council resolutions, or to slow down its weapons program. Our goal is to fully and finally remove a real threat to world peace and to America. Hopefully this can be done peacefully. Hopefully we can do this without any military action."
- George W. Bush, October 16, 2002
"It seemed clear that Bush had made up his mind to take military action, even if the timing was not yet decided. But the case was thin. Saddam was not threatening his neighbors, and his WMD capability was less than that of Libya, North Korea or Iran."
- Downing Street memo, July 23, 2002
How can members of Congress avoid looking like anything but irrelevant busybodies if they will occupy themselves with Major League Baseball's steroid policy but refuse to consider information that President Bush may have intentionally misled the nation about the threat posed by Saddam Hussein? Though the series of meeting minutes now known as the Downing Street memos may not turn out to be a smoking gun, they are worth knowing more about because they could help explain why the Iraq war has turned out as it has.
The British memos are both careful and vague. But they clearly convey a sense that the Bush administration was trying to figure out how to go to war against Saddam Hussein when the administration was saying publicly it was trying to avoid war. The contradiction is evident from the two comments above: Three months before the president says he hopes removing "a real threat to world peace and to America" can be done peacefully, the chief of the British intelligence service says in another part of the memo quoted above, "Military action was now seen as inevitable." The public does not know if this is an accurate assessment of the situation nearly three years ago; it does know that Knight Ridder in February of that year reported President Bush had already made up his mind to attack and had taken steps to begin the war, and it knows that the United States went to war on assertions about WMD that have proved inaccurate.
Taking a cue from the political right and its hounding of President Clinton over his statements concerning Monica Lewinsky and Whitewater, the political left wants congressional hearings and the impeachment of President Bush - he is assumed guilty. This isn't going to happen. But there is a useful question raised by these memos: To what extent did a determination to go to war before the WMD issue could be clarified, before the United Nations' votes and potentially with minimal regard for the aftermath of war force the United States into its current position?
The question isn't for a congressional hearing to answer but for a commission very much like the 9/11 Commission: bipartisan, carefully chosen, expertly staffed. It would look back seriously at the circumstances of the time, explain them, then gauge how they affected the prolonged, bloody post-war period. The commission's role would be to examine the assumptions that went into the war and point out where those assumptions were flawed. It would need subpoena power to accomplish this.
The administration might object to such a commission, but it also objected to the 9/11 Commission, at first, then relented. The intelligence reform that followed was possible only because of the commission's work. The Downing Street memos are not as easy to accept, but they are as necessary because revealing the planning at that time could improve how this nation goes to war.