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No Smoking Gun

By Michael Kinsley
Sunday, June 12, 2005

After about the 200th e-mail from a stranger demanding that I cease my personal coverup of something called the Downing Street Memo, I decided to read it. It's all over the blogosphere and Air America, the left-wing talk radio network: This is the smoking gun of the Iraq war. It is proof positive that President Bush was determined to invade Iraq the year before he did so. The whole "weapons of mass destruction" concern was phony from the start, and the drama about inspections was just kabuki: going through the motions.

Although it is flattering to be thought personally responsible for allowing a proven war criminal to remain in office, in the end I don't buy the fuss. Nevertheless, I am enjoying it, as an encouraging sign of the revival of the left. Developing a paranoid theory and promoting it to the very edge of national respectability takes a certain amount of ideological self-confidence. It takes a critical mass of citizens with extreme views and the time and energy to obsess about them. It takes a promotional infrastructure and the widely shared self-discipline to settle on a story line, disseminate it and stick to it.

It takes, in short, what Hillary Clinton once called a vast conspiracy. The right has enjoyed one for years. Even moderate and reasonable right-wingers have enjoyed the presence of a mass of angry people even further right. This overhang of extremists makes the moderates appear more reasonable. It pulls the center of politics, where the media try to be and where compromises on particular issues end up, in a rightward direction. Listening to extreme views on your own side is soothing even if you would never express them and may not even believe them yourself.

So, cheers for the Downing Street Memo. But what does it say? It's a report on a meeting of British Prime Minister Tony Blair and some aides on July 23, 2002. The key passage summarizes "recent talks in Washington" by the head of British foreign intelligence (identified, John Le Carre-style, simply as "C"). C reported that "Military action was now seen as inevitable. Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy. . . . There was little discussion in Washington of the aftermath after military action."

C's focus on the dog that didn't bark -- the lack of discussion about the aftermath of war -- was smart and prescient. But even on its face, the memo is not proof that Bush had decided on war. It says that war is "now seen as inevitable" by "Washington." That is, people other than Bush had concluded, based on observation, that he was determined to go to war. There is no claim of even fourth-hand knowledge that he had actually declared this intention. Even if "Washington" meant actual administration decision makers, rather than the usual freelance chatterboxes, C is saying only that these people believe that war is how events will play out.

Of course, if "intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy," rather than vice versa, that is pretty good evidence of Bush's intentions, as well as a scandal in its own right. And we know now that this was true and a half. Fixing intelligence and facts to fit a desired policy is the Bush II governing style, especially concerning the war in Iraq. But C offered no specifics, or none that made it into the memo. Nor does the memo assert that actual decision makers had told him they were fixing the facts. Although the prose is not exactly crystalline, it seems to be saying only that "Washington" had reached that conclusion.

And of course Washington had done so. You don't need a secret memo to know this. Just look at what was in the newspapers on July 23, 2002, and the day before. Left-wing Los Angeles Times columnist Robert Scheer casually referred to the coming war against Iraq as "much-planned-for." The New York Times reported Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's response to an earlier story "which reported preliminary planning on ways the United States might attack Iraq to topple President Saddam Hussein." Rumsfeld effectively confirmed the report by announcing an investigation of the leak.

A Wall Street Journal op-ed piece declared that "the drums of war beat louder." A dispatch from Turkey in the New York Times even used the same word "inevitable" to describe the thinking in Ankara about the thinking in Washington about the decision "to topple President Saddam Hussein of Iraq by force."

Poor Time magazine, with a cover date of July 22 but actually published a week earlier, had the whole story. "Sometime last spring the President ordered the Pentagon and the CIA to come up with a new plan to invade Iraq and topple its leader." Originally planned for the fall, the war was put off until "at least early next year" (which is when, in fact, it happened). Unfortunately, Time went on to speculate that because of a weak economy, the war "may have to wait -- some think forever," and concluded that "Washington is engaged more in psy-war than in war itself."

Some people you have to hit over the head. Hey, you folks at Time, why are you ignoring the Downing Street Memo?

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The June 5 column about financial inequality incorrectly referred to an anecdote in the Wall Street Journal as being about crashing the charity ball society of Palm Springs, Calif. The city was Palm Beach, Fla.

The writer is editorial and opinion editor of the Los Angeles Times.

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