As British voters decide today whether to return Tony Blair to 10 Downing Street, a key factor for many of them may be the leaked minutes of a meeting Blair held in July 2002 -- a document that suggests that the Bush administration had decided to invade Iraq long before the White House claims any such decision was made.
The Sunday Times published the document over the weekend. It memorializes a meeting on July 23, 2002, in which Blair, foreign secretary Jack Straw and others discussed the possibility of war with Iraq. According to the document, Blair was told that there had been a "perceptible shift in attitude" in Washington: "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 National Security Council had "no patience" with "the U.N. route," the document says, and the Bush administration seemed to be considering just two options: war following a build-up of U.S. troops in the region, or war using troops already there.
In what appears to be a summary of Straw's presentation to Blair, the document says: "It seemed clear that Bush had made up his mind to take military action, even if the timing was not yet decided. But the case was thin. Saddam was not threatening his neighbours, and his WMD capability was less than that of Libya, North Korea or Iran." Straw appears to have advised Blair to work through the United Nations to "help with the legal justification for the use of force."
If the document accurately reflects White House plans for Iraq, it runs counter to the Bush administration's subsequent assurances that no decision had been made about a war. In August 2002, a month after the Blair meeting, White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said that the president "has not made a decision about the use of military action vis-a-vis Iraq." And in October 2002, Bush himself was still holding out "hope" in public that the Iraq situation "will not require military action."
Blair's supporters have dismissed the memo as "nothing new." Blair says: "We do say sorry for all those people who have died, but I cannot apologize for taking the country to war." The White House? It needn't say anything at all. As Bush has explained, the United States had its "accountability moment" about Iraq in November, and that's that.