Bush Was Set on Path to War, British
by Don Van Natta, Jr.
New York Times, March 27, 2006
In the weeks before the United States-led
invasion of Iraq, as the United States and Britain pressed for
a second United Nations resolution condemning Iraq, President
Bush's public ultimatum to Saddam Hussein was blunt: Disarm or
But behind closed doors, the president
was certain that war was inevitable. During a private two-hour
meeting in the Oval Office on Jan. 31, 2003, he made clear to
Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain that he was determined to
invade Iraq without the second resolution, or even if international
arms inspectors failed to find unconventional weapons, said a
confidential memo about the meeting written by Mr. Blair's top
foreign policy adviser and reviewed by The New York Times.
"Our diplomatic strategy had to be
arranged around the military planning," David Manning, Mr.
Blair's chief foreign policy adviser at the time, wrote in the
memo that summarized the discussion between Mr. Bush, Mr. Blair
and six of their top aides.
"The start date for the military
campaign was now penciled in for 10 March," Mr. Manning wrote,
paraphrasing the president. "This was when the bombing would
The timetable came at an important diplomatic
moment. Five days after the Bush-Blair meeting, Secretary of State
Colin L. Powell was scheduled to appear before the United Nations
to present the American evidence that Iraq posed a threat to world
security by hiding unconventional weapons.
Although the United States and Britain
aggressively sought a second United Nations resolution against
Iraq - which they failed to obtain - the president said repeatedly
that he did not believe he needed it for an invasion.
Stamped "extremely sensitive,"
the five-page memorandum, which was circulated among a handful
of Mr. Blair's most senior aides, had not been made public. Several
highlights were first published in January in the book "Lawless
World," which was written by a British lawyer and international
law professor, Philippe Sands. In early February, Channel 4 in
London first broadcast several excerpts from the memo.
Since then, The New York Times has reviewed
the five-page memo in its entirety. While the president's sentiments
about invading Iraq were known at the time, the previously unreported
material offers an unfiltered view of two leaders on the brink
of war, yet supremely confident.
The memo indicates the two leaders envisioned
a quick victory and a transition to a new Iraqi government that
would be complicated, but manageable. Mr. Bush predicted that
it was "unlikely there would be internecine warfare between
the different religious and ethnic groups." Mr. Blair agreed
with that assessment.
The memo also shows that the president
and the prime minister acknowledged that no unconventional weapons
had been found inside Iraq. Faced with the possibility of not
finding any before the planned invasion, Mr. Bush talked about
several ways to provoke a confrontation, including a proposal
to paint a United States surveillance plane in the colors of the
United Nations in hopes of drawing fire, or assassinating Mr.
Those proposals were first reported last
month in the British press, but the memo does not make clear whether
they reflected Mr. Bush's extemporaneous suggestions, or were
elements of the government's plan.
Two senior British officials confirmed
the authenticity of the memo, but declined to talk further about
it, citing Britain's Official Secrets Act, which made it illegal
to divulge classified information. But one of them said, "In
all of this discussion during the run-up to the Iraq war, it is
obvious that viewing a snapshot at a certain point in time gives
only a partial view of the decision-making process."
On Sunday, Frederick Jones, the spokesman
for the National Security Council, said the president's public
comments were consistent with his private remarks made to Mr.
Blair. "While the use of force was a last option, we recognized
that it might be necessary and were planning accordingly,"
Mr. Jones said.
"The public record at the time, including
numerous statements by the President, makes clear that the administration
was continuing to pursue a diplomatic solution into 2003,"
he said. "Saddam Hussein was given every opportunity to comply,
but he chose continued defiance, even after being given one final
opportunity to comply or face serious consequences. Our public
and private comments are fully consistent."
The January 2003 memo is the latest in
a series of secret memos produced by top aides to Mr. Blair that
summarize private discussions between the president and the prime
minister. Another group of British memos, including the so-called
Downing Street memo written in July 2002, showed that some senior
British officials had been concerned that the United States was
determined to invade Iraq, and that the "intelligence and
facts were being fixed around the policy" by the Bush administration
to fit its desire to go to war.
The latest memo is striking in its characterization
of frank, almost casual, conversation by Mr. Bush and Mr. Blair
about the most serious subjects. At one point, the leaders swapped
ideas for a postwar Iraqi government. "As for the future
government of Iraq, people would find it very odd if we handed
it over to another dictator," the prime minister is quoted
"Bush agreed," Mr. Manning wrote.
This exchange, like most of the quotations in this article, have
not been previously reported.
Mr. Bush was accompanied at the meeting
by Condoleezza Rice, who was then the national security adviser;
Dan Fried, a senior aide to Ms. Rice; and Andrew H. Card Jr.,
the White House chief of staff. Along with Mr. Manning, Mr. Blair
was joined by two other senior aides: Jonathan Powell, his chief
of staff, and Matthew Rycroft, a foreign policy aide and the author
of the Downing Street memo.
By late January 2003, United Nations inspectors
had spent six weeks in Iraq hunting for weapons under the auspices
of Security Council Resolution 1441, which authorized "serious
consequences" if Iraq voluntarily failed to disarm. Led by
Hans Blix, the inspectors had reported little cooperation from
Mr. Hussein, and no success finding any unconventional weapons.
At their meeting, Mr. Bush and Mr. Blair
candidly expressed their doubts that chemical, biological or nuclear
weapons would be found in Iraq in the coming weeks, the memo said.
The president spoke as if an invasion was unavoidable. The two
leaders discussed a timetable for the war, details of the military
campaign and plans for the aftermath of the war.
Without much elaboration, the memo also
says the president raised three possible ways of provoking a confrontation.
Since they were first reported last month, neither the White House
nor the British government has discussed them.
"The U.S. was thinking of flying
U2 reconnaissance aircraft with fighter cover over Iraq, painted
in U.N. colours," the memo says, attributing the idea to
Mr. Bush. "If Saddam fired on them, he would be in breach."
It also described the president as saying,
"The U.S. might be able to bring out a defector who could
give a public presentation about Saddam's W.M.D," referring
to weapons of mass destruction.
A brief clause in the memo refers to a
third possibility, mentioned by Mr. Bush, a proposal to assassinate
Saddam Hussein. The memo does not indicate how Mr. Blair responded
to the idea.
Mr. Sands first reported the proposals
in his book, although he did not use any direct quotations from
the memo. He is a professor of international law at University
College of London and the founding member of the Matrix law office
in London, where the prime minister's wife, Cherie Blair, is a
Mr. Jones, the National Security Council
spokesman, declined to discuss the proposals, saying, "We
are not going to get into discussing private discussions of the
At several points during the meeting between
Mr. Bush and Mr. Blair, there was palpable tension over finding
a legitimate legal trigger for going to war that would be acceptable
to other nations, the memo said. The prime minister was quoted
as saying it was essential for both countries to lobby for a second
United Nations resolution against Iraq, because it would serve
as "an insurance policy against the unexpected."
The memo said Mr. Blair told Mr. Bush,
"If anything went wrong with the military campaign, or if
Saddam increased the stakes by burning the oil wells, killing
children or fomenting internal divisions within Iraq, a second
resolution would give us international cover, especially with
Running Out of Time
Mr. Bush agreed that the two countries
should attempt to get a second resolution, but he added that time
was running out. "The U.S. would put its full weight behind
efforts to get another resolution and would twist arms and even
threaten," Mr. Bush was paraphrased in the memo as saying.
The document added, "But he had to
say that if we ultimately failed, military action would follow
The leaders agreed that three weeks remained
to obtain a second United Nations Security Council resolution
before military commanders would need to begin preparing for an
Summarizing statements by the president,
the memo says: "The air campaign would probably last four
days, during which some 1,500 targets would be hit. Great care
would be taken to avoid hitting innocent civilians. Bush thought
the impact of the air onslaught would ensure the early collapse
of Saddam's regime. Given this military timetable, we needed to
go for a second resolution as soon as possible. This probably
meant after Blix's next report to the Security Council in mid-February."
Mr. Blair was described as responding
that both countries would make clear that a second resolution
amounted to "Saddam's final opportunity." The memo described
Mr. Blair as saying: "We had been very patient. Now we should
be saying that the crisis must be resolved in weeks, not months."
It reported: "Bush agreed. He commented
that he was not itching to go to war, but we could not allow Saddam
to go on playing with us. At some point, probably when we had
passed the second resolutions - assuming we did - we should warn
Saddam that he had a week to leave. We should notify the media
too. We would then have a clear field if Saddam refused to go."
Mr. Bush devoted much of the meeting to
outlining the military strategy. The president, the memo says,
said the planned air campaign "would destroy Saddam's command
and control quickly." It also said that he expected Iraq's
army to "fold very quickly." He also is reported as
telling the prime minister that the Republican Guard would be
"decimated by the bombing."
Despite his optimism, Mr. Bush said he
was aware that "there were uncertainties and risks,"
the memo says, and it goes on, "As far as destroying the
oil wells were concerned, the U.S. was well equipped to repair
them quickly, although this would be easier in the south of Iraq
than in the north."
The two men briefly discussed plans for
a post-Hussein Iraqi government. "The prime minister asked
about aftermath planning," the memo says. "Condi Rice
said that a great deal of work was now in hand.
Referring to the Defense Department, it
said: "A planning cell in D.O.D. was looking at all aspects
and would deploy to Iraq to direct operations as soon as the military
action was over. Bush said that a great deal of detailed planning
had been done on supplying the Iraqi people with food and medicine."
Planning for After the War
The leaders then looked beyond the war,
imagining the transition from Mr. Hussein's rule to a new government.
Immediately after the war, a military occupation would be put
in place for an unknown period of time, the president was described
as saying. He spoke of the "dilemma of managing the transition
to the civil administration," the memo says.
The document concludes with Mr. Manning
still holding out a last-minute hope of inspectors finding weapons
in Iraq, or even Mr. Hussein voluntarily leaving Iraq. But Mr.
Manning wrote that he was concerned this could not be accomplished
by Mr. Bush's timeline for war.
"This makes the timing very tight,"
he wrote. "We therefore need to stay closely alongside Blix,
do all we can to help the inspectors make a significant find,
and work hard on the other members of the Security Council to
accept the noncooperation case so that we can secure the minimum
nine votes when we need them, probably the end of February."
At a White House news conference following
the closed-door session, Mr. Bush and Mr. Blair said "the
crisis" had to be resolved in a timely manner. "Saddam
Hussein is not disarming," the president told reporters.
"He is a danger to the world. He must disarm. And that's
why I have constantly said - and the prime minister has constantly
said - this issue will come to a head in a matter of weeks, not
Despite intense lobbying by the United
States and Britain, a second United Nations resolution was not
obtained. The American-led military coalition invaded Iraq on
March 19, 2003, nine days after the target date set by the president
on that late January day at the White House.