Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Geography Lesson

Walter Pincus of the Washington Post reports that while it was all smiles and solidarity out on stage, behind the scenes the British were nervous about going to war in Iraq, even to the point that the Foreign Minister thought the war might be illegal.

In the spring of 2002, two weeks before British Prime Minister Tony Blair journeyed to Crawford, Tex., to meet with President Bush at his ranch about the escalating confrontation with Iraq, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw sounded a prescient warning.

“The rewards from your visit to Crawford will be few,” Straw wrote in a March 25 memo to Blair stamped “Secret and Personal.” “The risks are high, both for you and for the Government.”

In public, British officials were declaring their solidarity with the Bush administration’s calls for elimination of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. But Straw’s memo and seven other secret documents disclosed in recent months by British journalist Michael Smith together reveal a much different picture. Behind the scenes, British officials believed the U.S. administration was already committed to a war that they feared was ill-conceived and illegal and could lead to disaster.

The documents indicate that the officials foresaw a host of problems that later would haunt both governments — including thin intelligence about the nature of the Iraqi threat, weak public support for war and a lack of planning for the aftermath of military action. British cabinet ministers, Foreign Office diplomats, senior generals and intelligence service officials all weighed in with concerns and reservations. Yet they could not dissuade their counterparts in the Bush administration — nor, indeed, their own leader — from going forward.


Critics of the Bush administration contend the documents — including the now-famous Downing Street Memo of July 23, 2002 — constitute proof that Bush made the decision to go to war at least eight months before it began, and that the subsequent diplomatic campaign at the United Nations was a charade, designed to convince the public that war was necessary, rather than an attempt to resolve the crisis peacefully. They contend the documents have not received the attention they deserve.

Supporters of the administration contend, by contrast, that the memos add little or nothing to what is already publicly known about the run-up to the war and even help show that the British officials genuinely believed Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. They say that opponents of Bush and Blair are distorting the documents’ meaning in order to attack both men politically.

But beyond the question of whether they constitute a so-called smoking gun of evidence against the White House, the memos offer an intriguing look at what the top officials of the United States’ chief ally were thinking, doing and fearing in the months before the war.

So it’s the “now-famous” Downing Street Memo. BFT.

Add to that this news from the ABC/Washington Post poll:

As President Bush prepares to address the nation about Iraq tonight, a new Washington Post-ABC News poll finds that most Americans do not believe the administration’s claims that impressive gains are being made against the insurgency, but a clear majority is willing to keep U.S. forces there for an extended time to stabilize the country.

The survey found that only one in eight Americans currently favors an immediate pullout of U.S. forces, while a solid majority continues to agree with Bush that the United States must remain in Iraq until civil order is restored — a goal that most of those surveyed acknowledge is, at best, several years away.


So far, continuing spasms of violence in Iraq are competing with regular declarations of progress in Washington. Few people agree with Vice President Cheney’s recent claim that the insurgency is in its “last throes.” The survey found that 22 percent of Americans — barely one in five — say they believe that the insurgency is getting weaker, while 24 percent believe it is strengthening. More than half — 53 percent — say resistance to U.S. and Iraqi government forces has not changed, a view that matches the assessment offered last week in congressional testimony by the U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. John P. Abizaid.


By a narrow margin, the public continues to think the war has not been worth the cost and bigger majorities fear that Iraq has crippled the ability of the United States to respond to conflicts elsewhere in the world and has damaged efforts to recruit young people into the military. A large majority, about six in 10 people, say the United States is “bogged down” in Iraq.

Overwhelming majorities of Americans think the Bush administration and U.S. military leaders fundamentally underestimated the difficulty of the war and failed to anticipate the tenacity of the insurgency in Iraq.

Part of the administration’s apparently growing credibility problem may be the result of recent disclosures about prewar planning, including what has come to be known as the Downing Street memo, reflecting notes of a July 2002 meeting with British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his top advisers. The memo said that the Bush administration had decided to go to war and that “the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.”

Perhaps it is becoming clear to both the country and the administration that while they may not have known what they were getting into when they decided to go to war in the spring and summer of 2002, they are getting a very clear idea of what creek they are up now.