George W. Bush insisted during his press conference last week that he never "wanted" to go to war in Iraq. The claim didn't sit well with those who have a head for prewar trivia -- remember how the president pushed Richard Clarke and others to find an Iraq-9/11 link in the days after the attacks -- and now the New York Times is providing a reminder.
During a meeting in the Oval Office in January 2003, the Times says, Bush made it clear to British Prime Minister Tony Blair that war with Iraq was inevitable -- with or without a second resolution from the United Nations and with or without any discovery of WMD by the U.N. inspectors working in Iraq. Realizing that a WMD find was increasingly unlikely, Bush floated other ideas for justifying the start of war. Among them: The United States could paint a U.S. spy plane in the colors of the United Nations in the hopes that Saddam Hussein would fire on it. In the alternative, Bush said, perhaps the United States could simply assassinate the Iraqi leader.
If it all sounds familiar, that's because it is. As the Times acknowledges, the details of the Jan. 31, 2003, Bush-Blair meeting were first reported in the British press back in February after law professor Philippe Sands published, in a book called "Lawless World," what he said were excerpts from a memo on the meeting. The Times says it has now seen the memo itself, thus providing an opportunity for the paper to provide a long and detailed account showing Bush's determination to go to war, no matter what.
It's a reminder of how the president took the United States to war, and it couldn't come at a worse time for the White House. The president has been working hard again to bolster support for the war from an increasingly skeptical public, and it doesn't seem to be working. Bush's approval rating slipped again in a new Time poll released over the weekend, and Iraq is the central front in the nation's discontent. By a seven-point margin, Americans now say they think Democrats would do a better job of handling Iraq than the Republicans have.
The White House sent Condoleezza Rice out to sell the war Sunday, but you know you're in trouble when even Fox News isn't buying. Fox's Chris Wallace made Rice sit through a videotape of herself talking back in December about the need for Iraqis to maintain "momentum" coming out of the elections. Then he lit into her. "Secretary Rice, today, almost three-and-a-half months after those elections, they still don't have a government. They haven't sustained the momentum in the way that you were talking about there," Wallace said. "Why shouldn't Americans be outraged that while U.S. troops fight and die -- and in fact, since December 15th, 173 of them have been killed -- Iraqi politicians are haggling about jobs?"
Rice complained that Wallace was mischaracterizing the situation. Maybe he was -- there's probably a distinction between "haggling for jobs" and creating a government -- but the American people are clearly losing patience. The news from 2003 won't buy the White House more time, and neither will the news from today: At least 30 people were killed in a bombing at an army recruiting center in northern Iraq. Meanwhile, Shiite leaders in Baghdad have suspended talks on forming a new government amid allegations that the United States conducted a raid and killed worshipers inside the Al-Moustafa mosque.
Correction: He planned ahead, but maybe not that far ahead: As several readers have noted, the initial version of this post said that the Bush-Blair meeting happened on Jan. 31, 2001. It was, of course, Jan. 31, 2003. The post has been corrected.