A Gun that Doesn’t Smoke

Maybe I just missed it, but I haven’t seen a lot of comment on the top secret British memo that was leaked just before this week’s election. It apparently was written by Matthew Rycroft, and summarizes a meeting of Tony Blair and some of his top advisers on July 23, 2002. The memo is intensely interesting, so I am going to reproduce it in its entirety:

IRAQ: PRIME MINISTER’S MEETING, 23 JULY
Copy addressees and you met the Prime Minister on 23 July to discuss Iraq.
This record is extremely sensitive. No further copies should be made. It should be shown only to those with a genuine need to know its contents.
John Scarlett summarised the intelligence and latest JIC assessment. Saddam’s regime was tough and based on extreme fear. The only way to overthrow it was likely to be by massive military action. Saddam was worried and expected an attack, probably by air and land, but he was not convinced that it would be immediate or overwhelming. His regime expected their neighbours to line up with the US. Saddam knew that regular army morale was poor. Real support for Saddam among the public was probably narrowly based.
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. The NSC had no patience with the UN route, and no enthusiasm for publishing material on the Iraqi regime’s record. There was little discussion in Washington of the aftermath after military action.
CDS said that military planners would brief CENTCOM on 1-2 August, Rumsfeld on 3 August and Bush on 4 August.
The two broad US options were:
(a) Generated Start. A slow build-up of 250,000 US troops, a short (72 hour) air campaign, then a move up to Baghdad from the south. Lead time of 90 days (30 days preparation plus 60 days deployment to Kuwait).
(b) Running Start. Use forces already in theatre (3 x 6,000), continuous air campaign, initiated by an Iraqi casus belli. Total lead time of 60 days with the air campaign beginning even earlier. A hazardous option.
The US saw the UK (and Kuwait) as essential, with basing in Diego Garcia and Cyprus critical for either option. Turkey and other Gulf states were also important, but less vital. The three main options for UK involvement were:
(i) Basing in Diego Garcia and Cyprus, plus three SF squadrons.
(ii) As above, with maritime and air assets in addition.
(iii) As above, plus a land contribution of up to 40,000, perhaps with a discrete role in Northern Iraq entering from Turkey, tying down two Iraqi divisions.
The Defence Secretary said that the US had already begun “spikes of activity” to put pressure on the regime. No decisions had been taken, but he thought the most likely timing in US minds for military action to begin was January, with the timeline beginning 30 days before the US Congressional elections.
The Foreign Secretary said he would discuss this with Colin Powell this week. It seemed clear that Bush had made up his mind to take military action, even if the timing was not yet decided. But the case was thin. Saddam was not threatening his neighbours, and his WMD capability was less than that of Libya, North Korea or Iran. We should work up a plan for an ultimatum to Saddam to allow back in the UN weapons inspectors. This would also help with the legal justification for the use of force.
The Attorney-General said that the desire for regime change was not a legal base for military action. There were three possible legal bases: self-defence, humanitarian intervention, or UNSC authorisation. The first and second could not be the base in this case. Relying on UNSCR 1205 of three years ago would be difficult. The situation might of course change.
The Prime Minister said that it would make a big difference politically and legally if Saddam refused to allow in the UN inspectors. Regime change and WMD were linked in the sense that it was the regime that was producing the WMD. There were different strategies for dealing with Libya and Iran. If the political context were right, people would support regime change. The two key issues were whether the military plan worked and whether we had the political strategy to give the military plan the space to work.
On the first, CDS said that we did not know yet if the US battleplan was workable. The military were continuing to ask lots of questions.
For instance, what were the consequences, if Saddam used WMD on day one, or if Baghdad did not collapse and urban warfighting began? You said that Saddam could also use his WMD on Kuwait. Or on Israel, added the Defence Secretary.
The Foreign Secretary thought the US would not go ahead with a military plan unless convinced that it was a winning strategy. On this, US and UK interests converged. But on the political strategy, there could be US/UK differences. Despite US resistance, we should explore discreetly the ultimatum. Saddam would continue to play hard-ball with the UN.
John Scarlett assessed that Saddam would allow the inspectors back in only when he thought the threat of military action was real.
The Defence Secretary said that if the Prime Minister wanted UK military involvement, he would need to decide this early. He cautioned that many in the US did not think it worth going down the ultimatum route. It would be important for the Prime Minister to set out the political context to Bush.
Conclusions:
(a) We should work on the assumption that the UK would take part in any military action. But we needed a fuller picture of US planning before we could take any firm decisions. CDS should tell the US military that we were considering a range of options.
(b) The Prime Minister would revert on the question of whether funds could be spent in preparation for this operation.
(c) CDS would send the Prime Minister full details of the proposed military campaign and possible UK contributions by the end of the week.
(d) The Foreign Secretary would send the Prime Minister the background on the UN inspectors, and discreetly work up the ultimatum to Saddam.
He would also send the Prime Minister advice on the positions of countries in the region especially Turkey, and of the key EU member states.
(e) John Scarlett would send the Prime Minister a full intelligence update.
(f) We must not ignore the legal issues: the Attorney-General would consider legal advice with FCO/MOD legal advisers.
(I have written separately to commission this follow-up work.)
MATTHEW RYCROFT

Left-wing professor Juan Cole is one who has tried to use this memo to feed the BUSH LIED! theme. Cole’s discussion of the memo is, to put it politely, overheated:

Any “debate” was meaningless if the president had already decided. And he wasn’t waiting to make his decision in the light of the intelligence. He was going to tell the intelligence professionals to what conclusion they had to come. “But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.”

Cole focuses on what is, obviously, a striking sentence. It isn’t clear, however, what it was intended to mean. Cole’s implication, and the constant implication of the BUSH LIED! lefties, is that the administration really knew that Saddam didn’t have any WMDs, but fixed the intelligence to make it appear that he did. But we know that isn’t true. The consensus estimate of the U.S. intelligence community has been made public, and it clearly says that, with a high degree of confidence, Iraq possesses chemical and biological weapons. The Senate Intelligence Committee’s report has confirmed that this is what the intelligence community believed and reported to the President, and that there is no evidence that the administration improperly influenced the gathering or reporting of intelligence (“The Committee did not find any evidence that Administration officials attempted to coerce, influence or pressure analysts to change their judgments related to Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction capabilities.”)
And, whatever the British note-taker meant by the sentence quoted by Cole, he obviously didn’t mean that there was any doubt on the part of British intelligence or Blair’s government that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. On the contrary, the notes specifically refer to Iraq’s WMDs, in sections not quoted by Cole:

The Prime Minister said that it would make a big difference politically and legally if Saddam refused to allow in the UN inspectors. Regime change and WMD were linked in the sense that it was the regime that was producing the WMD…
On the first, CDS said that we did not know yet if the US battleplan was workable. The military were continuing to ask lots of questions.
For instance, what were the consequences, if Saddam used WMD on day one, or if Baghdad did not collapse and urban warfighting began? You said that Saddam could also use his WMD on Kuwait. Or on Israel, added the Defence Secretary.

Cole waxes even more hysterical on the issue of the Iraq war’s legality:

Goldsmith was as nervous as a cat in a roomful of rocking chairs: “The Attorney-General said that the desire for regime change was not a legal base for military action. There were three possible legal bases: self-defence, humanitarian intervention, or UNSC authorisation. The first and second could not be the base in this case. Relying on UNSCR 1205 of three years ago would be difficult. The situation might of course change.”
The driness of the wit is unbearable. “The desire for regime change was not a legal base for military action”! Naked aggression is illegal, he could have said.
The Attorney General of the United Kingdom thought the reports Dearlove and Straw were bringing back from Washington reeked of an illegal war. People who plan out illegal wars are war criminals. He knew this. He was stuck, however. They were all stuck.

Professor Cole forgets an important bit of history here. Subsequent to this July meeting, the United States and Great Britain did go back to the U.N. for a new resolution, UNSCR 1441, which was adopted on November 8, 2002. When Iraq subsequently failed to comply with Resolution 1441, a new ground for military action existed. Thus, the Attorney General’s concern about relying on a three-year-old resolution was satisfied; in the Attorney General’s words, the situation changed. Consequently, when he wrote his official opinion shortly before the war began, he concluded that the war’s legality was a “reasonably arguable case” that could be “reasonably maintained.”
Is that a ringing endorsement? Of course not. But in our view, and that of most supporters of the war, a preemptive strike against a recidivist regime like Saddam’s is clearly justified where there is reasonable apprehension of danger to our security. And, while it would be nice to have such a strike blessed by the U.N.’s Security Council, where members of the Security Council have been bribed and have promised to veto any resolution authorizing war, it is absurd to argue that such veto power means it is illegal to act in our own defense. Attorney General Goldsmith applied a narrower standard; but it is hardly a shock to learn that the Bush administration’s view of what was necessary to legitimize the Iraq war was different from his or from Kofi Annan’s.
In short, this British memo, while it does provide a fascinating glimpse into high-level decision making in Blair’s government, is far from being a “smoking gun,” as Cole calls it. It adds nothing to our knowledge of the important issues surrounding the Iraq war.

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