Fighting Words

Conspiracy Theories

If you liked The Da Vinci Code, you’ll love the Downing Street memo.

A few weeks ago, at an airport in Europe, I saw Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code staring at me across the bookstore bins. I had seen it many times before and averted my gaze, but I was facing a long delay, and I suddenly thought: May as well get it over with.

Well, of course I knew it would be bad. I just didn’t know that it would be that bad. Never mind for now the breathless and witless style, or the mashed-paper characters, or the lazy, puerile reliance on incredible coincidence to flog the lame plot along. What if it was all true? What if the Nazarene had had issue, in fleshly form, with an androgynous disciple? The Catholic Church would look foolish but, then, it already looks foolish enough on the basis of the official story. “Opus Dei,” according to Brown, is a sinister cult organization. Excuse me, but I already knew this, so to speak, independently.

Over the past month, I have hardly been able to open my e-mail without a flood of similarly portentous tripe concerning the “Downing Street memo(s).” This time, it is not the interior of a Templar Church but the style of a clerk in the British Foreign Office that furnishes “the key to all mythologies.” A former CIA hand named Ray McGovern has challenged me to debate about the “smoking gun” contained in the Downing Street palimpsests, and I have agreed, in principle. Other correspondents have helpfully added other “smoking guns” as e-mail attachments. A man named Morgan Reynolds, a former chief economist at the Bush Labor Department and now an instructor at Texas A&M, has proof that the World Trade Center was laid low by a “controlled demolition” and not by the hijacked planes. This is a refreshing change from the Gore Vidal view that the Bush administration knowingly grounded all military aircraft in order to give the al-Qaida teams a clear shot. But perhaps both those theories are congruent: One wouldn’t want to exclude any options if one were a Republican seeking to incinerate the downtown business HQ of capitalist globalization.

I am not one of those who uses the term “conspiracy theory” as an automatic sneer of dismissal. Conspiracies do occur. I spent a lot of my life at one point trying to show that William Casey of the Reagan-era CIA had made a private deal with the Iranian hostage-takers in 1979, inducing them to keep their prisoners until the Carter administration had been defeated, and I still firmly believe that something of the sort (which eventually culminated in the Iran-Contra underworld) was at least attempted. So do many senior members of both parties in Washington, with whom I am still in touch.

But the main Downing Street document does not introduce us to any hidden or arcane or occult knowledge. As Fred Kaplan wrote in Slate last week, it explains no mystery. As protagonist Jim Dixon observes in another context in Lucky Jim, it is remarkable for “its niggling mindlessness, its funereal parade of yawn-enforcing facts, the pseudo-light it threw upon non-problems.” On a visit to Washington in the prelude to the Iraq war, some senior British officials formed the strong and correct impression that the Bush administration was bent upon an intervention. Their junior note-taker committed the literary and political solecism of saying that intelligence findings and “facts” were being “fixed” around this policy.

Well, if that doesn’t prove it, I don’t know what does. We apparently have an administration that can, on the word of a British clerk, “fix” not just findings but also “facts.” Never mind for now that the English employ the word “fix” in a slightly different way—a better term might have been “organized.”

We have been here before. In an interview with Sam Tanenhaus for Vanity Fair more than two years ago, Paul Wolfowitz allowed that, though there were many reasons to seek the removal of Saddam Hussein, the legal minimum basis for it was to be sought, inside the U.S. government bureaucracy and at the United Nations, in the unenforced resolutions concerning WMD. At the time, this mild observation was also hailed as a full confession of perfidy.

I am now forced to wonder: Who is there who does not know that the Bush administration decided after September 2001 to change the balance of power in the region and to enforce the Iraq Liberation Act, passed unanimously by the Senate in 1998, which made it overt American policy to change the government of Iraq? This was a fairly open conspiracy, and an open secret. Given that everyone from Hans Blix to Jacques Chirac believed that Saddam was hiding weapons from inspectors, it made legal sense to advance this case under the banner of international law and to treat Saddam “as if” (and how else?) his strategy of concealment and deception were prima facie proof. The British attorney general—who has no jurisdiction in these 50 states—was worried that “regime change” alone would not be a sufficient legal basis. One appreciates his concern. But the existence of the Saddam regime was itself a defiance of all known international laws, and we had before us the consequences of previous failures to act, in Bosnia and Rwanda, where action would have been another word for “regime change.”

Many in the British Foreign Office, like many in the American State Department and the CIA, felt more comfortable with the status quo as they knew it (which might explain the hapless references elsewhere in the memos to Iraq’s “Sunni majority”). But theirs is only one opinion among many. How odd that the American left, when it is not busy swallowing the unpunctuated words of the CIA, follows this with another helping of wisdom from the most reactionary institution of the British state.

If such a “left” is not careful, it will end up consoling itself in futile bitterness and resentment in the way that the Old Right used to do: by brooding on the hellish manner in which FDR told the Japanese to “bring it on” at Pearl Harbor. (The anti-war right of today, led by Pat Buchanan, was raised and nurtured on this very fantasy, as were Gore Vidal and the other Charles Lindbergh fans.) I am in favor of taking such theories at face value, as a thought experiment, to see how they pan out. It is clear that Roosevelt hoped that the Japanese empire would make a mistake and furnish a pretext for war: The plain evidence of this hope is what keeps the conspiracy theory alive. I myself rather doubt that he would have wanted to start such a war with the loss of the Pacific Fleet, but still, he did think a confrontation was inevitable, as indeed it was. And William Casey may have seen the chance for a double coup: taking credit for the release of the Iranian hostages and discrediting Jimmy Carter into the bargain. But if it had all come out at the time, and been proven, would this change my attitude to Japanese imperialism or to Iranian hostage-taking theocracy? Certainly not. The demand would be to impeach those responsible in Washington and to form a national bipartisan alliance to fight even harder against our enemies, and in defense of our friends.

Full circle, then: The outrage about the nondisclosures in the Downing Street memos has led Congressman Walter Jones of North Carolina to demand that we tell the al-Qaida forces in Iraq exactly when we intend to give up. Jones is the right-wing bigmouth who once wanted to rename French fries “freedom fries.” He was a moral and political cretin when he did that and, not to my surprise, he has been unable to stop being a moral and political cretin since. He and his new friends are welcome to each other. They illustrate exactly how the credulous search for Da Vinci codes is the sign of feeble minds.