Some on the left are still trying to stir up controversy surrounding the ‘Downing Street’ memo. One of the main agitators is Congressman John Conyers, who has actually set up a telephone hotline for ‘tips’ from any members of the public who happen to have any information which might contribute to impeaching President Bush, and who has been a steadfast supporter of conspiracy theories surrounding the 2004 election in the face of overwhelming evidence contradicting his position. Conyers plans to introduce legislation to start an investigation of the British memo this week in the House and John Kerry is believed to be planning to do the same in the Senate.
All of this centers around the third hand account in the memo of a briefing in which the head of MI6 reported that he had been told by his US contacts that President Bush was planning to take action against Iraq early after the 9/11 attack, and that he had requested that evidence of Iraqi offenses be assembled to support such action. To me this sounds pretty innocuous, but some have taken the wording of the memo which uses the term ‘fixed’ to suggest that the evidence was going to essentially be fabricated. It’s not a crazy position to take, but certainly not the interpretation which anyone involved would have chosen. Much has also been made of the idea that the memo shows an intent to make war on Iraq some months before the administration committed to that course publicly.
Thinking about the memo raised the question in my mind of exactly when the administration really should have started thinking about taking action against Iraq, and whether Bush’s sudden interest after 9/11 came out of the blue or had an origin even before that date. The World Trade Center attack is such a momentous turning point in recent history that I think we sometimes forget everything that happened before it, or that crises which began before 9/11 continued on after the attacks and were still serious and still needed to be dealt with.
I’m firmly convinced that George W. Bush had the idea of getting rid of Saddam Hussein in the back of his mind from the moment his father lost the election in 1992. He may not have planned or even thought he would get a chance to do anything about it, but I feel confident in saying he and his family weren’t exactly big Saddam fans during the 90s or later. Does that mean that he was planning to invade Iraq should he ever become president while he was running for Governor of Texas in the 90s? The thought occured to me a couple of times during the 90s, I’m sure it occured to him as well. That’s hardly the same thing as planning a war, but it could be used to show some sort of intent or premeditation.
If he was thinking about regime change in Iraq in the 1990s he wasn’t exactly alone. A lot of people who had been in his father’s administration and who were in the military command weren’t happy with the way the first Gulf War turned out, and many people saw Saddam as an ongoing threat, what with his constant blustering about WMDs and giving UN inspectors the runaround. It got to the point that in 1998 during the second term of the Clinton administration cruise missile attacks were launched on Afghanistan, Sudan and Iraq. Congress was equally concerned and passed the Iraq Liberation Act speficially authorizing unilateral measures to try to implement regime change in Iraq. This was actually the third act that year authorizing action against Iraq, following up on bills which authorized various types of monetary and material support for the Kurds, the Northern Alliance and other anti-Saddam groups.
The Iraq Liberation Act is significant, because it takes the form of a declaration of war in everything but name. It lays out the causes of action and every offense Saddam had committed in detail, and authorizes every action short of actual direct military intervention, including providing military services and support to anti-Saddam factions in Iraq. Its list of ‘Findings’ is especially significant, because it lays out 12 reasons why forced regime change in Iraq is justifiable, and the presence of WMDs in Iraq is given very little attention in the list. Much more emphasis is given to Saddam’s genocidal activities, hostility to his neighbors and prior use of WMDs. While his lack of cooperation with UN Inspectors is also included in one of the Findings, it’s clearly not the primary reason for removing Saddam, just another among many.
When we move forward a few years to 2002 and the decision is made to take military action agaisnt Iraq, WMDs have become a much more major concern. Yet although WMDs are specifically mentioned in the Authorization of the Use of Force Against Iraq bill, that bill’s primary justifications for attacking Iraq refer back to the Findings in the 1998 Iraq Liberation Act. So again, it’s not the WMDs which are ultimately used to justify action against Iraq, but the entire history of abuses and threats which characterize the Iraqi regime. Clearly the authorization of military force is just an extension of the already existing policy of regime change, just taking it to a higher level. And that regime change policy was based on human rights and past crimes of Saddam Hussein and his government much more than WMDs.
What does all this have to do with the Downing Street Memo? Aside from showing that members of Congress have very short memories, it demonstrates that the decision to pursue military action against Iraq didn’t happen in a vacuum and was part of an ongoing policy of supporting regime change for long-established reasons which had little to do with WMDs. It drives home the point that there was no need to assemble questionable data to support the fact that Iraq had WMDs – after all, that’s why UN inspectors were there. It also serves as a strong reminder of how aware our legislators were and had been for years of the crimes of the Iraqi regime and the need to remove Saddam from power. When Bush proposed military action against Iraq it wasn’t some radical plan that came out of the blue and needed extraordinary measures to be justified, it was an almost inevitable outgrowth of a policy which had begun in the previous administration. When they passed the Iraq Liberation Act in 1998 Congress knew that it was justified by far more than just WMDs, and they knew that if the measures it authorized did not work more extreme action – military action – might be necessary.
In the context of this history of a policy of justifiable action to accomplish regime change in Iraq, the Downing Street memo starts to look like a description of routine preparations, rather than a description of some sort of radical policy. While John Conyers will certainly try to get as much mileage out of it as he can, a look at the history reveals the truth that the memo is much more a trivial footnote than a major revelation.
All Contents of this article copyright 2005, Dave Nalle