On 1 May, just days before Britain’s national election, The Sunday Times obtained and published a secret government memo on the ousting of Saddam.[i] Public reaction was appallingly unsophisticated (much of it, anyway) and undoubtedly contributed to Labour’s lackluster performance at the polls.[ii] Because of the party’s poor showing, Prime Minister Tony Blair may now be forced to step aside, most likely in favor of Gordon Brown.
There is a sad irony in all of this. If more British voters (and the opinion makers who influenced them) had made a genuine effort to understand the significance of that memo, the elections would likely have gone in precisely the opposite direction and Blair would now be sitting on an even larger majority than he enjoyed before.
The document in question, classified SECRET – UK EYES ONLY, was a record of a meeting between Blair and his senior advisors. The topic was what to do about Saddam. The memo was dated 23 July 2002, well before the first coalition bombs struck Baghdad on 20 March of the following year.
The memo said that among Washington policymakers, “[m]ilitary 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 text went on:
The Prime Minister said that it would make a big difference politically and legally if Saddam refused to allow in the UN inspectors. Regime change and WMD were linked in the sense that it was the regime that was producing the WMD… If the political context were right, people would support regime change. The two key issues were whether the military plan worked and whether we had the political strategy to give the military plan the space to work.
The “military plan” was what ultimately became Operation Iraqi Freedom, and the “political strategy” was the diplomatic push on WMD. “We should work on the assumption,” the memo concluded, “that the UK would take part in any military action.”
Blair’s political opponents hit the ceiling, as did much of the press. This was proof that Bush and Blair had lied their countries into an unnecessary war, for reasons unclear but probably nefarious. Or so went the rant. Sir Menzies Campbell, deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats, was typical when he said the Blair government had “agreed to an illegal regime change with the Bush administration. It set out to create the justification for going to war. It was to be war by any means.”[iii]
Although too late to do Blair much good politically, a response to such charges is still worthwhile. If nothing else, it may make our struggle against militant Islam easier to appreciate going forward.
First, the matter of secrecy. Within hours after it hit The Sunday Times, Blair’s office came out and said the memo contained nothing new.[iv] And, of course, that’s right. But the very fact that the contrary would even be seriously asserted is amazing.
Almost from the moment military action against Saddam was publicly floated by the Bush administration, informed analysts were pointing out the obvious — i.e., there was a grand strategic design at work, not just some knee-jerk concern with WMD.
I myself have been laying out the strategic importance of Operation Iraqi Freedom for several years now, so I won’t repeat it again here.[v] Suffice to say, Bush and Blair (and especially Bush) recognized early on that a military invasion of Iraq, followed by a physical presence in-country for an indefinite period of time, was key to changing the poisonous social/political environment in the Middle East that enabled violent Islamist ideology to flourish. The talk about Saddam and WMD was not a lie — Bush and Blair certainly believed it, as did pretty much every intelligence service in the Western world — but there was far more to Operation Iraqi Freedom than WMD. The now-famous memo is simply another confirmation of Bush and Blair’s proper concern with larger strategic realities, and the relatively subordinate role that Iraqi WMD played in their calculations. Nothing new there, as Blair correctly said.
But there is another aspect to this whole affair that is more troubling. We are now over three years into the war against militant Islam. It is simply inexcusable for opinion makers and public intellectuals (e.g., those who made such a fuss about the “revelations” in the Downing Street memo) not to grasp the strategic imperatives behind what we are doing in Iraq and elsewhere. It’s certainly okay to disagree with our strategy, but for supposedly sophisticated commentators to miss the entire point and continue raving about WMD and UN sanctions is simply beyond the pale. Regardless of whether they support or oppose the Bush Doctrine and attendant strategies, critics have a responsibility to acknowledge those strategies and the goal of a new Middle East toward which they are driving.
A perfect example of an opinion leader who takes this responsibility seriously is Efraim Halevy, former chief of Mossad. He recently said about America’s strategy in Iraq and beyond:
I believe that for the U.S. to be able to reap the benefits of its very bold policies in the Middle East, it will be necessary for successive presidents to maintain a formidable military presence in the region for quite some time to come. The U.S. has set in motion a sea change in the entire region and we are only witnessing the preliminary phases of this change… I think there will be many in the Arab world who will come to appreciate the enormous contribution that the U.S. is making to the future of the societies of the Middle East. But for all this to happen, the U.S. must stay the course.[vi]
Whether one agrees with Halevy or not, at least he comprehends the strategic picture and is able to speak intelligently about it. Such understanding contrasts sharply with those who still talk as if all Bush and Blair were ever concerned about was enforcing UN resolutions.
The decision to invade Iraq was made as part of a broad strategy to shift the balance of power in the Islamic world, a strategy that will be playing out for years to come. Unfortunately, the voters and opinion makers who turned against Blair because of the Downing Street memo don’t understand that. Not their finest hour, to say the least.
Mr. Carroll is a former officer in the Clandestine Service of the CIA. He can be contacted through Carroll Associates at www.tpcarroll.com.
[ii] Before the vote, Labour held a 161-seat majority in Parliament. That has now dropped to an anemic 67.