Open Downing Street Memo thread

A few commenters have asked me to post something on the Downing Street Memo(s). Truth be told, I missed this story while putting together the tenure file, and I’ve found with stories like this that it’s tough to jump in in mid-wave. The memos already have their own Wikipedia entry, their own web site, and ...

By , a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and co-host of the Space the Nation podcast.

A few commenters have asked me to post something on the Downing Street Memo(s). Truth be told, I missed this story while putting together the tenure file, and I've found with stories like this that it's tough to jump in in mid-wave. The memos already have their own Wikipedia entry, their own web site, and their own blog, so I'm not sure what I can add except my own initial reaction and a place for people to vent. [And how is that different from every other blog entry of yours?--ed. As opposed to the half-assed thoughts that make up your average blog posts, I'm only using a third of my ass on this one.] The big bad graf that everyone is harping on is this one from the :

A few commenters have asked me to post something on the Downing Street Memo(s). Truth be told, I missed this story while putting together the tenure file, and I’ve found with stories like this that it’s tough to jump in in mid-wave. The memos already have their own Wikipedia entry, their own web site, and their own blog, so I’m not sure what I can add except my own initial reaction and a place for people to vent. [And how is that different from every other blog entry of yours?–ed. As opposed to the half-assed thoughts that make up your average blog posts, I’m only using a third of my ass on this one.] The big bad graf that everyone is harping on is this one from the :

C [ Secret Intelligence Service Sir Richard Dearlove] 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.

According to downingstreetmemo.com:

The contents of the memos are shocking. The July 23, 2002 minutes detail how our government did not believe Iraq was a greater threat than other nations; how intelligence was packaged to sell the case for war to both Congress and the American public; and how the Bush Administration?s public assurances of “war as a last resort” were at odds with their privately stated intentions.

My quick reaction:

1) First, a defense of Blair: there’s been a lot of chatter about how the memo demonstrates the minimal influence the Brits had on Bush. Actually, I’d argue that they did have significant influence on the thing Blair cared about the most: going to the UN. The memo says “NSC had no patience with the UN route,” and yet Bush wound up going to the UN twice at the behest of Blair (tag-teamed with Colin Powell). 2) Others have made much of the sentence that “There was little discussion in Washington of the aftermath after military action.” While this has been a subject of serious venting on this blog, I’m not sure that this sentence is as devastating as people think. This took place in mid-2002, six months before anyone thought military action would take place. Some serious discussions should have been started around then, but blasting the administration for not having completely thought out the matter six months in advance seems a bit much. [What about not having thought out the matter even after the invasion?–ed. That’s fair game, but it’s also extraneous to these memos.] 3) As I said back in late 2002, the fact that other countries were more active on the nuclear proliferation front does not mean that the use of force in Iraq was misplaced:

Why, then, is the U.S. going after Iraq while ?consulting? on North Korea? It?s not because pre-emption can?t apply to both countries; it?s because the power politics of the Middle East are radically different from those of the Far East. Invade Iraq, and no other great power?s sphere of influence is dramatically affected; the Middle East will remain an American bailiwick for quite some time. North Korea borders China and Russia; a pre-emptive attack against Pyongyang understandably ruffles more feathers. North Korea can be temporarily handed off to others — Iraq can’t. No other great power can influence Iraqi behavior, so it?s up to the United States to do what only the United States can do; threaten and use force. Geopolitics raises the costs of a pre-emptive U.S. attack on North Korea, but those same geopolitics also renders North Korea more vulnerable to multilateral pressure. On the Korean peninsula, Russia and especially China have incentives similar to ours; get the DPRK to give up its WMD capabilities. These countries value stability in the region and trade with South Korea. Chinese and Russian coercive pressure has forced North Korea into making concessions in the past. Coercion in the present won?t permanently solve the problem, but it will — temporarily — arrest North Korea?s nuclear program. This is how foreign policy works. Neoconservatives and Wilsonians expecting consistency will cry foul, but in a world where even American resources are finite, no foreign policy doctrine will ever emerge unsullied by foreign policy practice.

4) The biggest charge is that the president shaped the intelligence to gin up an excuse for the war. On this point, Fred Kaplan’s essay in Slate does a nice job of encapsulating what I think:

The memos do not show, for instance, that Bush simply invented the notion that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction or that Saddam posed a threat to the region. In fact, the memos reveal quite clearly that the top leaders in the U.S. and British governments genuinely believed their claims…. The implicit point of these passages is this: These top officials genuinely believed that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction?and that they constituted a threat. They believed that the international community had to be sold on the matter. But not all sales pitches are consciously deceptive. The salesmen in this case turned out to be wrong; their goods were bunk. But they seemed to believe in their product at the time.

The administration was clearly wrong about the WMD threat — but I think they thought they were right. They deserve any criticism they get about being wrong — but they don’t deserve the meme that they consciously misled the American people.

So those are my thoughts. Feel free to contribute yours. UPDATE: Check out Tim Cavanaugh’s take as well.

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and co-host of the Space the Nation podcast. Twitter: @dandrezner

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