Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

British Memos Shed Light on Bush's Iraq War Policy

WASHINGTON -- The disclosure of British government memorandums portraying U.S. President George W. Bush's administration as bent on war with Iraq by the summer of 2002 and insufficiently prepared for post-invasion problems, has caused a political stir on both sides of the Atlantic, in part because opponents of Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair see the documents as proof that both men misled their countries into war.

But the documents are not quite so shocking. Three years ago, the near-unanimous conventional wisdom in Washington held that Bush was determined to topple Saddam Hussein by any means necessary. Plenty of people -- chief among them Colin Powell, then secretary of state -- were also warning in public and private that the Pentagon was ill prepared for prolonged occupation.

What no one knew then for certain, though some lonely voices did predict it, is that U.S. forces would find none of the lethal chemical or biological weapons that Bush and Blair said made Iraq so dangerous, or that the anti-U.S. insurgency would be so durable and deadly.

Representative John Conyers, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, plans to hold a forum about the memos on Thursday -- without Republican participation.

The memos do shed new light on the thinking of senior British officials, and on their view of American thinking, in the months before the invasion. They suggest that the Bush administration paid no less, and no more, heed to the concerns of its closest ally than it did to those of its own secretary of state.

But there has been ample evidence for months, and even years, that top Bush officials saw war as inevitable by the summer of 2002. In the March 31, 2003, issue of The New Yorker, with the invasion just underway, Richard Haass, then the State Department's director of policy planning, said that in early July 2002 he asked Condoleezza Rice, then national security adviser, whether it made sense to put Iraq at the center of the agenda. "And she said, essentially, that that decision's been made, don't waste your breath," he said then.

The so-called Downing Street memo, a summary of a prime minister's meeting on July 23, 2002, does not put forward specific proof that Bush had taken any particular action, only a general sense that "it seemed clear that Bush had made up his mind to take military action, even if the timing was not yet decided." It describes the impression of Britain's chief of the Secret Intelligence Service that "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy," but does not elaborate.

Rather, what the memo seems to emphasize is that the United States could build greater support for any military action -- especially from Britain -- by first confronting Iraq through the United Nations, the course it eventually took at the urging of Blair and Powell.

The latest memo published is from July 21, 2002. It warned that "a post-war occupation of Iraq could lead to a protracted and costly nation-building exercise," in which "Washington could look to us to share a disproportionate share of the burden."