Downing Street Downer

Be careful what you wish for in May; you may get it in June


The moment the left has been awaiting hopefully for the past six weeks has arrived at last—and like everything the left hopes for these days, it's going to flop.

The Downing Street Memo, the Iraq War's smoking gun, the undoing of the Bush administration, the story so shocking only a concerted effort by the MSM could keep it quiet, the light that will finally open the eyes of the American people, has finally arrived. It's in The Washington Post. It's in the Los Angeles Times. It's on the Sunday talk shows. There will be televised hearings on Thursday. U.S. Representative Walter "Freedom Fries" Jones (R-NC) is looking into it. There's a sequel in the works.

The argument over whether the Downing Street Memo is now-famous, famous enough, sorta famous, or just-right famous will go on. But the campaign to get people paying attention to the DSM has been won: The document itself will now take center stage. And that's the problem.

To the extent that the Downing Street Memo had real value, it was as a meta-story. As long as we were confined to talking points about how the media were ignoring the Downing Street Memo, it was smooth sailing. In fact, the media-silence angle was the most interesting part of the story, yielding hilarious gems like Eric Boehlert's survey of newsrooms in Salon, wherein the hard-charging newshound editors at several major newspapers concede that they dropped the ball on this story because the wire services didn't explain that it was important. As potential rather than kinetic energy, the Memo had talismanic power. We were free to pretend it was as damning as the Pentagon Papers, as ironclad as the Massey Prenup. Faced with the actual Memo, however (and it's a quick read, so here it is again), we have a total of one money quote, apparently courtesy of Sir Richard Dearlove, a.k.a. "C," head of the British Intelligence Service:

C reported on his recent talks in Washington. There was a perceptible shift in attitude. Military 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 NSC had no patience with the UN route, and no enthusiasm for publishing material on the Iraqi regime's record. There was little discussion in Washington of the aftermath after military action.

Does that strike you as underwhelming? It struck me that way when I read it in the beginning of May, and more so yesterday when, convinced by the drumbeat of my fellow war opponents that I had missed something, I took another look. But just to be sure, let's go to a paraphrase from a DSM believer, The New York Review of Books' Mark Danner, who points out:

Seen from today's perspective this short paragraph is a strikingly clear template for the future, establishing these points:

1. By mid-July 2002, eight months before the war began, President Bush had decided to invade and occupy Iraq.

2. Bush had decided to "justify" the war "by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD."

3. Already "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy."

4. Many at the top of the administration did not want to seek approval from the United Nations (going "the UN route").

5. Few in Washington seemed much interested in the aftermath of the war.

First of all, it doesn't establish those points at all. It presents hearsay evidence from a British politician. Outside of Tom Sneddon, it's hard to imagine the prosecutor who would consider this to be incontrovertible evidence. (Not that that's stopping believers from considering it exactly that.) In some of the less-frequently cited portions of the DSM, we find other UK officials qualifying these assertions ("It seemed clear that Bush had made up his mind…"—my italics), hedging bets ("No decisions had been taken…") and seemingly contradicting the above paraphrase ("The Foreign Secretary thought the US would not go ahead with a military plan unless convinced it was a winning strategy").

Nevertheless, Danner is on target in his points. Now we have another opinion supporting the little-known theory that Condoleezza Rice was impatient with United Nations and the novel argument that administration officials didn't think through the post-war consequences. It is now more clear than ever that by mid-July of 2002 President George W. Bush was going to invade Iraq. But wasn't it clear before 9/11 that Bush was going to invade Iraq? Wasn't it clear before he was inaugurated that Bush was going to invade Iraq? The left understands all this and believes it's a scandal, or should be. The majority of American voters understand it too, and they re-elected Bush handily and have yet to turn solidly against the war in Iraq.

It was elegant timing that another of history's droppings—the revelation that Mark Felt was "Deep Throat"—splattered into the middle of the DSM controversy. This relic of the pre-Reagan, pre-Clinton era when, it's now clear, politicians simply didn't understand how much they could get away with, gave perfect shape to the left's quaint faith in Gnostic wisdom. If the common people only understood—if they would just attend to our media, read our books, empurple over our pet outrages—surely the scales would fall from their eyes. But to respect the much-lauded American People as sentient actors, you have to give them credit for being able to act with malice aforethought. Most Americans already know what's in the Downing Street Memo. They knew it before the memo was even published. And they don't care.

One interesting DSM bright spot has been identified by Los Angeles Times editorial page editor Michael Kinsley, who speculates that the left has shown unexpected mojo by keeping the Memo alive these many fallow weeks. (For his troubles, Kinsley's been lambasted by DSM enthusiasts.)

Maybe he's right, and in some incremental way, this will push the discussion toward a final historical decision that the invasion of Iraq was a colossal error. Since I believe the invasion of Iraq was a colossal error, I hope that's the case. But comparing the low-impact arrival of the DSM with the deft way the way the right has exploited such unpromising materials as the Swift Boat Veterans and Newsweek's Koran-in-the-toilet fiasco, it's hard to see how this constitutes a growing resistance to Bush's inexorable will.

The Downing Street Memo is here. It couldn't be starved to death by media inattention. It couldn't be smothered under a manure of Brangelina and Runaway Brides. It's escaped into the open—to die of natural causes.