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The March To War

Don Van Natta, Jr. clearly thinks he's found a smoking gun. How else to explain his treatment of the contents of a top-secret British memo in this morning's New York Times:

Bush Was Set on Path to War, Memo by British Adviser Says By DON VAN NATTA Jr.

LONDON -- 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 face war.

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.

There are two ways to frame this story, and it's clear which angle Van Natta takes. He starts by suggesting that President Bush's private discussions about Iraq were somehow at odds with his public declarations telling Hussein to "disarm or face war" and casting the contents of the memo as more evidence of a President hell-bent on war regardless of the circumstances.

A more benign - and some would say fair - view of the meeting would be to say that by late January, 2003 President Bush had lost almost all hope that Saddam would comply with the demands for immediate, accurate and complete disclosure of his WMD programs laid out in Resolution 1441, passed unanimously by the UN Security Council on November 8, 2002.

In fact, President Bush had every reason to be pessimistic. As I've written about before, by late January 2003, Iraq had already submitted a WMD declaration which many experts found dubious, and only four days prior to the meeting Van Natta writes about Hans Blix had gone before the UN Security Council and declared that "Iraq appears not to have come to a genuine acceptance, not even today, of the disarmament which was demanded of it and which it needs to carry out to win the confidence of the world and to live in peace."

Furthermore, the idea that the U.S. would have "penciled in" a date for the invasion at that point isn't all that surprising. Military experts had been warning for months that it would be difficult for the U.S. to maintain a substantial military presence on the border of Iraq for any length of time (one of the reasons Saddam grudgingly allowed inspectors to continue operating, it should be pointed out) and also that military action would need to be conducted sooner rather than later to avoid starting an invasion at the height of the Middle Eastern summer.

There's more in the Van Natta story that could be seen as favorable to the President, though it's all buried well below the lede. What Van Natta's "march to war" story misses, as do so many others about the subject, is that ultimately the choice for war was Hussein's not Bush's. Once Resolution 1441 passed, the onus on WMD disclosure and thus the responsibility for avoiding military action fell on Saddam. He had months to comply, but failed to do so fully or convincingly even by the lenient standards of the United Nations. Even up until the last hours before the invasion Hussein could have prevented military action by coming clean on WMD or by going into exile, as many called for him to do. In the end Hussein did neither, and so the invasion began as promised.