War Stories

Reading the Downing Street Tea Leaves

When did Bush decide to invade Iraq?

Before we leave the Downing Street memo to the squabbles of history—with some touting it as the crowning proof of George W. Bush’s duplicity, others dismissing it as a vague trifle, and still others (like me) coming out somewhere in between—let us examine one last intriguing and vital mystery that the document poses: When did Bush decide to go to war in Iraq?

The key passage of the memo—which lays down the minutes of a July 23, 2002, British Cabinet meeting and was obtained and published by the Times of London just last month—is also the one that’s gained the greatest notoriety:

C reported on his recent talks in Washington. There was a perceptible shift in attitude. Military action was now seen as inevitable. 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.

“C,” as is now well known, was the code name for Richard Dearlove, head of MI6, the British foreign-intelligence service. Most discussion of this passage has focused on its final sentence and the meaning of the phrase “fixed around.” But the most interesting part, for purposes of this discussion, is the second sentence: “There was a perceptible shift in attitude. When Dearlove had been in Washington some time before, war was not a certainty; yet during this most recent visit, the whiff of gunpowder was distinctly in the air.

It would be useful to know the precise timing of Dearlove’s “recent talks in Washington”—and of his most recent visit before that. Still, if his perception (or, perhaps, his American source, who would have been then director of the CIA George Tenet) is to be trusted, the Bush administration seems to have firmly decided on war sometime in the late spring of 2002.

This inference is bolstered by an article that Nicholas Lemann wrote in the March 31, 2003, issue of The New Yorker, shortly after the war began. In it, he quotes Richard Haass—then the State Department’s director of policy planning—recalling a meeting with Condoleezza Rice, then Bush’s national security adviser, in the first week of July 2002:

Condi and I have regular meetings, once every month or so—she and I get together for thirty or forty-five minutes, just to review the bidding. And I raised this issue about were we really sure that we wanted to put Iraq front and center at this point, given the war on terrorism and other issues. And she said, essentially, that that decision’s been made, don’t waste your breath. And that was early July. … For me, it was that meeting with Condi that made me realize it was farther along than I had realized.

“Early July” is consistent with Dearlove’s visit to Washington (which, on July 23, was described as “recent”). By this theory, then, the administration settled on war sometime after Haass’ previous monthly meeting with Rice—in other words, in June or possibly May.

So, what happened around this time that might have triggered a firm decision? There were two significant developments. First, since March 2002, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan had been trying to persuade Iraqi officials to let weapons inspectors back into the country. In May, Annan gave up, realizing his efforts were futile. (Saddam finally did allow inspectors in that fall, only after the United States began to mobilize for military action.) Annan’s failure must have dealt a serious blow to those—chiefly in Colin Powell’s State Department—who were advocating diplomatic pressure against Saddam.

Second, on June 1, President Bush delivered his speech at West Point, declaring a new U.S. doctrine of “pre-emptive action” against “unbalanced dictators with weapons of mass destruction.” Presidents often deliver major addresses as a way of signaling a shift in policy—or of hardening a shift, of nailing it down by making it public. To the outside world, Bush was issuing a warning of his intentions. To the fiefdoms of his administration, he was ordering an end to the debate.

In a disciplined administration (and Bush’s is disciplined above all else), such speeches—such decisions—do lay down new ground rules. A similar phenomenon occurred after President Ronald Reagan ruled that there would be a robust missile-defense program and no new personal income taxes. The internal debate, which had been voluble on both issues, was over; dissenters knew that if they wanted to remain players, they would have to keep quiet.

Bush, as some accounts have it, may personally have decided on war by March 2002 or possibly earlier, just as Reagan had developed an enthusiasm for missile defense and an antipathy toward personal income taxes long before they were hammered into administration policy. Certainly, several of Bush’s top advisers had been aching for years to topple Saddam. But the Downing Street memo, combined with other reports, suggests that it was in June 2002—still nine months before the invasion started, and still at a time when President Bush was telling the public that war was a “last resort”—that the die was cast.

In short, this double whammy—Annan’s failure to make diplomatic headway with Iraq and Bush’s speech declaring a doctrine of pre-emption—may have been what set off the “shift in attitude” that Dearlove detected and the conversation-ending remark (“don’t waste your breath”) that Rice made to Haass.

But all this raises another, equally intriguing question: Had Annan’s campaign succeeded—had the Iraqis re-admitted U.N. inspectors in June 2002—could Bush have so decisively cut off the diplomatic option? In short, if Saddam Hussein hadn’t been so obstinate and miscalculating, might war have been prevented? (For more on this line of inquiry, click here.)

And finally there is one last riddle: Why did Bush go to war? It’s stunning to realize that, for all the memoirs and inside chronicles and investigative articles and books, we still don’t know the answer to this most basic of questions.