WORLD VIEWS: 'Downing St. Memo' reporter says U.S., Britain goaded Saddam; Conyers hearings grab headlines -- overseas; Bush pans Iran elections; and more.
- Edward M. Gomez, special to SF Gate
Tuesday, June 21, 2005
Will the Downing Street Memo please just go away?
For George W. Bush and Tony Blair, continuing attention -- which is slowly increasing in mainstream U.S. news media -- to the secret British-government document and to others like it (they've now all been dubbed, collectively, "the Downing Street Memos" (AP/Guardian)), has become a festering annoyance.
Michael Smith, a defense correspondent for Britain's sober daily, The Times, broke the stories about the first Downing Street Memo and, when it was later revealed, a related briefing paper for Blair. Both showed that the prime minister and his top advisers knew that going to war with Iraq without United Nations approval would be illegal, and that intelligence would have to be "fixed" (see first Downing Street Memo) to prop up their war-making policy.
Now, in his latest news report in The Times, Smith has reported that "leaked ... legal advice" to the Foreign Office (Britain's counterpart to the U.S. State Department) indicated that American and British bombing raids over southern Iraq, which began in May 2002, almost a year before the full-scale, U.S.-led attack, were illegal. (Times)
At that time, Smith says, U.S. Air Force and Royal Air Force jets "began 'spikes of activity' designed to goad Saddam Hussein into retaliating and giving the allies a pretext for war." The Pentagon named the bombing campaign the "Blue Plan."
"The Foreign Office advice shows military action to pressurize [Saddam's] regime was 'not consistent with' U.N. law, despite American claims that it was," Smith wrote in The Times. The leaked legal advice "made it clear [that] allied aircraft were legally entitled to patrol the no-fly zones over the north and south of Iraq only to deter attacks by Saddam's forces on the Kurdish and Shia populations ..." but that neither the U.S. nor Britain was authorized by the U.N. "to use military force to put pressure of any kind on the regime."
This is not the first time Smith has recounted this history; he called attention to the illegal bombing raids in late May in The New Statesman,too. Now, though, in light of the growing controversy surrounding the potential, damaging significance of the Downing Street Memos, Smith's latest report suggests that Blair's government avidly rushed to aid a war-mongering Bush administration that was determined to attack Iraq -- and that seemed desperate to find what it believed would be convincing excuses to do so.
For the Pentagon, Smith noted, "increased attacks on Iraqi installations" were intended to "degrade" Iraq's air defenses. The bombing began six months before the United Nations unanimously passed Resolution 1441 on Nov. 8, 2002. That resolution offered Iraq "a final opportunity to comply with its disarmament obligations" and to provide "an accurate full, final and complete disclosure ... of all aspects of its programs to develop weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles." It threatened "serious consequences" if Saddam did not meet its demands, a warning, Smith noted, "which the allies claim authorized military action." (U.N. resolution's text and The Times)
As Smith argued in his New Statesman report and reaffirmed in his latest Times news story, "In the absence of solid legal grounds for war, [the United States and Britain] tried to bomb Saddam Hussein into providing their casus belli. [W]hen that didn't work, they just stepped up the bombing rate, in effect starting the conflict without telling anyone." They "simply launched [the war] anyway, beneath the cloak of the no-fly zone." (New Statesman)
Now, as details are surfacing about how Bush and Blair appear to have fabricated excuses to justify their shared decision to go attack Iraq, the "story of the secret air war [is] dovetail[ing] neatly with the other evidence from the leaked [British-government] documents, further demonstrating why, even after the [recent] general election [in the United Kingdom], Blair's efforts to dispel the allegations about the background to war and get the country to 'move on' seem doomed to fail." (New Statesman)
* * * *
Last week, U.S. Rep. John Conyers held unofficial hearings on the first Downing Street Memo and the run-up to the war that appeared to make bigger headlines and to be taken more seriously overseas than in the United States.
In Canada, The Globe and Mail admitted that, because it was not an official congressional hearing, with no subpoena powers, the Michigan Democrat's Capitol Hill forum "was a bit of a sham." But its news report also noted that Conyers successfully "presided over an ... effective media event that focused attention on the still-unexplained discrepancies between ... Bush's public pronouncements in the months before the Iraq war and documents suggesting he had made up his mind to go to war long before."
Unlike many of its American counterparts, the British daily The Independent sounded urgent when it noted that Conyers was scheduled "to present a petition [to Bush] from more than 100 of his Democratic colleagues in the House, signed by 500,000 people, demanding that [the president] explain himself." The paper also warned that, although "[t]he White House has haughtily brushed aside" criticism based on the implications of the Downing Street Memo, the Bush administration "may find it more difficult to deal with bipartisan demands for an exit timetable for the 140,000 U.S. troops in Iraq." Bluntly, the paper stated, "There is an increasingly sour mood in America, much disillusioned with ... Bush, and inclined to share ... Conyers' belief that 'we got into a secret war we hadn't planned, and now we're in it we can't get out.'"
The Irish Examiner found it quite noteworthy that, at the Conyers-organized forum, "the word 'impeachment' loomed large."
In contrast to these foreign news media summaries of the Conyers event, in the United States, The Washington Post snidely referred to Conyers' unofficial hearings as "make-believe." Just a few days earlier, The New York Times had dismissed the significance of the leaked, secret British documents, too. They're "not quite so shocking," its top news analyst asserted.
Meanwhile, the BBC noted, it is bloggers who have been "keen to keep the pressure on the Bush and Blair governments [and] have tried to keep the memos in the limelight and put pressure on the mainstream media ...." They "can take some credit in raising the profile of the story in the U.S. media," the British news service observed. It added, "Based on bloggers linking to the [original May 1 news article in the London] Times, the story [about the first Downing Street Memo] has rarely left the top five for much of the last month and a half."
Only recently have some American news organizations indirectly acknowledged the bloggers' out-ahead lead on the story of the controversial British-government documents. The Associated Press's international editor told Editor & Publisher, the leading newspaper-industry trade magazine in the United States, "There is no question AP dropped the ball [by] not picking up on the Downing Street Memo sooner." In the same E&P article, commentator William E. Jackson Jr. chided the New York Times' news analyst for declaring that the leaked British-government documents "are not 'shocking.'"
Jackson asked, incredulously, "Official evidence of a rush to war not shocking?"
* * * *
"This war was based on lies and deception," said Celeste Zappala of Philadelphia, whose soldier son was killed while providing security for investigators searching for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Zappala said, "The only way we can understand how we've come to this disastrous position is to find out what the truth is."
Zappala's unsettling words appeared even more striking considering the newspaper in which they appeared: Her quoted remarks were included in a news story in Stars & Stripes, a Department of Defense-authorized newspaper distributed at U.S. military facilities. Knocking some of the shine off the tabloid's usual cheerleading tone about U.S. foreign policy and the military, its obligatory news article about parents who have demanded that Bush come clean about his actions in the run-up to the war seemed uncharacteristically somber.
The newspaper also quoted Dianne Davis, a mother from Pennsylvania whose son was killed last August. "I envy the parents who support this war, because if I did I'd sleep better," Davis said. She added, "But I don't sleep well. My son died for a lie."
* * * *
Alluding to the all-powerful Guardian Council of unelected Muslim clerics and jurists, who have the last word over all political proceedings in Iran -- including the power to decide who can run for office -- George W. Bush criticized last Friday's presidential vote in what he famously called an "axis of evil" country. Iran's voting process ignored "basic democratic standards" Bush said. He also blasted Iran's ruling, conservative-Islamist government's "oppressive record." (BBC)
Seven candidates' names had appeared on the ballot, but none won a clear majority. The result: the need for a second round of balloting in an Iranian presidential election, which will take place this coming Friday.
In the run-off, Tehran's ultraconservative mayor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, will face Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president who has been described as both a "conservative moderate" and a "wily pragmatist." (Persian Journal) Former parliament speaker Mehdi Karroubi, who came in third last Friday, claimed that the election had been marred by fraud; Iranian authorities ordered a partial recount of ballots that had been cast in Tehran and three other Iranian cities. (Le Monde)
Echoing Bush's criticism, Iranian human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi, the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, said she would boycott Friday's run-off vote. She said, "As long as [the members of Iran's powerful religious establishment] ... tell people whom to vote for by qualifying and disqualifying candidates, I will not vote." In this latest Iranian election, as in past contests, "all women candidates were disqualified[,] something which Ebadi ... has repeatedly criticised as unfair and unconstitutional." (Reuters India)
By contrast, Rafsanjani called on his countrymen not to miss Friday's vote. "I ask you to help prevent extremism [from gaining strength] through your massive participation in the run-off," he said, indirectly appealing for support for political reforms and alluding to the fact that reformist candidates had been eliminated in the first-round voting. As a result, Iran's main reformist groups have banded together to create an "antifascist" front. Their fear: that Iran's military could muscle into national politics in a big way. (Le Monde)
Paradoxically, Bush's comments "appeared to have boosted turnout among hard-liners" last Friday, ultimately benefiting Ahmadinejad. That's because the American president's publicized remarks seemed to tap a nationalist strain among many Iranian voters. As Hamed al-Abdullah, a political scientist at Kuwait University, observed, "Unknowingly, [Bush] pushed Iranians to vote so that they [could] prove their loyalty to the regime -- even if they are in disagreement with it." (AP/Globe and Mail)
Author, artist and critic Edward M. Gomez is a former diplomat and correspondent for Time magazine in New York, Tokyo and Paris. He speaks several languages and has lived and worked all over the world. He is a regular contributor to The New York Times and other publications and is the U.S. editor of Raw Vision magazine.