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Cracks In The Iraq Story

This column was written by Matthew Yglesias.
In the annals of stupid news events, the "controversy" sparked by Howard Dean's claim that the GOP is "pretty much a white, Christian party" ranks pretty high. Not only did Dean fail to say anything objectionable, but also that remark isn't something anyone could seriously deny. Nor does it even count as a criticism of Republicans. It's an anodyne description of well-known facts about the American electorate.

Normally, I would write off the uproar as just another unfortunate strike of the summer sillies, like the reporting on shark attacks and random missing persons we've come to expect from this period in the news calendar. Less happens during the summer, so you need to reach to find topics for coverage. This year, however, our cup runneth over. I like to think of myself as a serious person, but the burgeoning relationship between Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes is almost endlessly fascinating. And then there's the small matter of the war in Iraq. So there should be plenty of topics for editors to fill those column inches with.

Mid-May saw the leak of the so-called Downing Street Memo written by high-level British national security officials offering textual proof of what those of us who've been paying attention have long suspected: The Bush administration was determined to invade Iraq almost immediately after September 11, and the whole business with WMD, UN inspections, and so forth was just so much kabuki theater designed to lay the groundwork for a policy whose true motives lay elsewhere. This weekend, a second memo, leaked to the Times of London, provided further background. The British government, it seems, had committed itself to joining the United States in this war and was rather gravely concerned that the policy to which it had committed itself violated international law, making it necessary to design an appropriate pretext.

Those sort of legalistic points strike a bit of a false note here in the United States, where international law isn't taken nearly as seriously as a concept as it is in Europe. On Sunday, however, Walter Pincus -- whose excellent reporting on the machinations behind the Iraq War has been almost entirely buried in the back pages of The Washington Post for years -- was finally allowed onto page A1 with information that may prove more cutting on this side of the Atlantic: that the war was terribly ill-advised. The memo obtained by Pincus, likewise an official British government document, notes that though "military planning for action against Iraq is proceeding apace ... little thought" had been given to "the aftermath and how to shape it."

This, again, is not exactly stunning to those of us who've followed the copious evidence on the subject. Still, there's a difference between observing that the United States went into war without a plan -- without a realistic assessment of what we could accomplish, how it could be accomplished, and whether the costs of such a course of action would outweigh the benefits -- and the news that our main ally in the conflict made that observation long before the war happened. Yet the Brits joined up anyway. Why?

To this day, no one really knows. The impression one gets from the British memos is that Prime Minister Tony Blair's assessment was that the United Kingdom is well served by a policy of standing by the United States under virtually any conceivable circumstances, no matter how ill-advised any particular venture may happen to be. That's not the kind of thing you tell your voters, but I think a surprisingly strong case can be made in its favor.

But what was the White House after? Why did they do it? We have plenty of evidence that not only were the specific claims the administration made about WMD false (often knowingly so), but also that all of this was basically irrelevant to their actual thinking about why we should go to war.

But what were they thinking? Lowballing the likely costs of war to build public support makes sense in a cynical-scumbag kind of way, but how is it that these lowballs seem to have become the actual basis for real-world policy? Nobody knows. Nobody knows because all the memos we've seen are British; but the United States surely produces memos of its own. Plenty of Republican senators -- including key members of the Foreign Relations and Armed Services Committees -- have gotten positive reviews in the media and even from liberals for breaking at times with the White House line that all is well in Iraq. But where have the investigations been? A hearing here, a subpoena there, some kind of indication that the Republican Party stands for something other than the greater glory of President George W. Bush could bring this all to light. Clearly, what we do in Iraq from here is more important than rehashing how we got there in the first place. But we can't even begin to formulate an Iraq policy without confidence that the policymakers are telling us something resembling the truth about what they're trying to do and why.

Nor can we conduct any kind of reasonable diplomacy related to the situation as long as the nature of the situation remains shrouded in mystery and transparent deceptions. The issues are inextricably linked. The British memos have given us a tantalizing glimpse but don't get to the heart of the matter. The recent right-wing assault on the character of Mark Felt can be read as an effort to encourage everyone to keep the American people in the dark, but the truth is bound to come out sooner or later. Better that it be done in time for it to do some good.

Matthew Yglesias is a Prospect staff writer.

By Matthew Yglesias
Reprinted with permission from The American Prospect, 5 Broad Street, Boston, MA 02109. All rights reserved