In the US the latest leaked memos are seen as a smoking gun on Iraq, but in Britain we are struggling to keep up
Wednesday June 22, 2005
Now try to work this one out. Before the war on Iraq, Britain witnessed a ferocious debate over whether the case for conflict was legal and honest. It culminated in the largest demonstration in the country's history, as a million or more took to the streets to stop the war. At the same time, the US sleepwalked into battle. Its press subjected George Bush to a fraction of the scrutiny endured by Tony Blair: the president's claims about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction and links to al-Qaida were barely challenged. While Blair had to cajole and persuade his MPs to back him, Bush counted on the easy loyalty of his fellow Republicans - and of most leading Democrats.
Yet now the picture has reversed. In Washington Iraq remains close to the centre of politics while in Britain it has all but vanished. So the big news on Capitol Hill is the Democrats' refusal to confirm John Bolton, the man Bush wants to serve as US ambassador to the UN, in part because of suspicions arising from the lead-up to war. Meanwhile, RAF planes were involved last weekend in bombing raids in north-west Iraq - a marked escalation of their role - and British politics barely stirs. America has woken up; we are aslumber.
The best illustration of this strange reversal is the curious fate of the Downing Street memo. Leaked to the Sunday Times just before the election, it contained a slew of striking revelations. It minuted a meeting of Blair, Jack Straw, Geoff Hoon and a clutch of top officials back on July 23 2002 - when both Bush and Blair were adamant that no decision had been taken - and confirms that, on the contrary, Washington had resolved to go to war. Despite Straw's insistence that the case against Saddam was "thin", the course was set. According to the memo, Richard Dearlove, then head of MI6, explained that "Bush wanted to remove Saddam through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy."
As if that were not devastating enough - vindicating one of the anti-war camp's key charges, that the decision for war came first and the evidence was "fixed" to fit - the leaks have kept coming. In the past fortnight, six more documents have surfaced, their authenticity not challenged. One shows that Britain and the US heavily increased bombing raids on Iraq in the summer of 2002 - when London and Washington were still insisting that war was a last resort - even though the Foreign Office's own lawyers had advised that such action was illegal. These "spikes of activity" were aimed at provoking Saddam into action that might justify war. Other documents confirm that Blair had agreed to back regime change in the spring of 2002, that he was warned it was illegal and that ministers were told to "create the conditions" that would make it legal. Other gems include the admission that the threat from Saddam and WMD had not increased and that US attempts to link Baghdad to al-Qaida were "frankly unconvincing".
Taken together, these papers amount to an indictment of the way the British and American peoples were led to war. In Britain they have scarcely made a dent, but in America they have developed an unexpected momentum. Initially circulated on left-leaning websites, they have now broken out of the blogosphere and into the mainstream. The big newspapers have editorialised on the topic; last week Democratic congressmen held unofficial hearings into the memos; whole campaigns have formed solely to publicise their existence. (Now downingstreetmemo.com is there as an alternative to thankyoutony.com, where Americans are invited to signal their gratitude to their staunchest ally.) The memos have earned the two definitive accolades of a hot political issue: their own abbreviation - the DSM - and a customised line of T-shirts. ("Read the memo or die" is available in extra-large.)
The administration has been put on the defensive, lamely insisting that the decision for war was only taken in February 2003. Some Democrats believe the distance between that claim and these memos supplies the vital element of any scandal: proof that the president lied. They argue that if a fib about a dalliance with an intern was enough to see Bill Clinton impeached, lies that led to the deaths of 1,600 US troops and hundreds of thousands of uncounted and unnamed Iraqi civilians deserve at least the same treatment.
That's not going to happen - at least not while Republicans control both the House and Senate, chairing the committees that are meant to investigate such matters. It's also true that, while the mainstream US press has given space to the DSM issue, much of the coverage has sought to play down the documents' importance. (Having failed to expose the holes in the administration's case before the war, the American media is perhaps embarrassed to show how gaping those holes were.) One senior Democrat I spoke to yesterday suggested that the lead-up to war will never become a pivotal question because "it's not in Americans' nature to look backward". The focus now, he says, even among opponents of the war, is on "how to get out of this mess - not how we got into it".
For all that, the awkward questions linger. Last week Harry Reid, the Democrats' leader in the Senate, explained his opposition to Bolton's nomination partly in terms of the Downing Street memo: that document had established that "hyping intelligence" happened and he wanted to know if Bolton had ever been involved in similar exercises.
Even when the past is put to one side, Iraq continues to have a salience in the US that it lacks here. Coverage of the daily cost of the occupation remains intense, with a constant gaze on the insurgency that refuses to fade away.
What explains this contrast? Part of it is bad timing. The first memo was leaked in the dog days of a British election campaign after a week dominated by the publication of the attorney general's famed advice. Journalists decided that voters were Iraq-ed out and so gave the memo much less coverage than it deserved. The election itself has played a role too. The assumption is that Britons delivered their verdict on Iraq by cutting Labour's majority and therefore the reckoning has, at least partially, happened. That is certainly how the government likes to play it: privately, ministers will hint that the whole Iraq business was a bit of a nightmare but it's behind us now and we can all move on.
The trouble is, it is not behind us. The occupation continues and people are still dying, daily, in substantial numbers. In the US the realisation seems to be dawning that this episode represents, at the very least, a case of maladministration, of desperately poor governance. That failure should be investigated, by Commons committees as much as by congressional ones, not because some of us cannot let go of the past - but because there is no other way to ensure such folly never happens again.
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Key documents: advice to the government
07.03.03: Attorney general's full advice on Iraq war (pdf)
07.03.03: Summary of the attorney general's advice on Iraq war
17.03.03: Full text of the attorney general's published advice
Key documents: UN security council
28.02.03: Hans Blix's report to the UN security council (pdf)
US security council resolution 678 (pdf)
UN security council resolution 687 (pdf)
UN security council resolution 1441 (pdf)
Key documents: House of Commons
18.03.03: Full text of Commons Iraq debate (Hansard)
15.03.03 report: Iraqi non-compliance with UNSCR
Butler report into intelligence on WMD
Lord Lester's analysis of the summary of the attorney general's advice of 07.03.03 (pdf)
27.04.2005: Q&A: Lord Goldsmith's legal advice and the Iraq war
28.04.2005: Countdown to war
UK politics and Iraq