The Downing Street Memo

After the leak of the Downing Street memo, the smoke has been wafting through the air from the barrel of the proverbial incriminating gun obliterating any remaining doubts that President Bush committed premeditated murder. The contents of the Downing Street memo should squelch all doubts about whether President Bush was determined to go to war against Iraq now that the highest members of the British government have acknowledged the authenticity of the memo although the debate over its content rages on. There is nothing shocking or surprising about the contents of the “Downing Street memo”. That is not to say that it doesn’t reveal that President Bush was planning to execute a plan for regime change long before his administration undertook any thoughtful analysis based on accurate intelligence. My contention is that President Bush’s conduct is not an aberration but part of a foreign policy paradigm which applies to the conduct of all presidents at least since World War II First of all, the accusations about the decision to bomb Iraq with no concern for legitimate grounds for such an attack followed by a campaign to invent a rationale for the attack and to manipulate the public into supporting the war are without a doubt true. In the memo, Sir Richard Dearlove, the Director of SIS (aka MI6) reports that “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 Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, claims that “It seemed clear that Bush had made up his mind to take military action, even if the timing was not yet decided.”

That the Bush and Blair governments went on a fishing expedition in the hope of catching any excuse to justify the war is undeniable. In the memo, Attorney-General, Lord Goldsmith, stated “that the desire for regime change was not a legal basis for military action. There were three possible legal bases: self-defence, humanitarian intervention, or UNSC authorization. The first and second could not be the base in this case. Relying on UNSCR 1205 of three years ago would be difficult.” UNSCR 1205 demands “full and immediate compliance by Iraq with its obligations under Resolution 687…” In other words, we are definitely attacking Iraq and we need a justification which at the moment seems problematic.

All of these revealing comments in the memo simply reaffirm that the United States is an Empire which does not accept boundaries including the American Constitution, the United Nations Charter, international law, or world opinion. President Bush is simply the current Emperor of the American Empire whose conduct is no different than any other American Emperor. When a candidate becomes president he accepts the role of emperor of the realm.

For example, President Eisenhower accepted the same imperatives of empire as George W. when he planned the overthrow of the democratically elected government of Guatemala. The decision to remove Jacobo Arbenz from power was made during the Truman administration and was based on the fear that the new government would implement progressive reforms that were inimical to American corporate interests and on the fact that the United Fruit Company had some idle land confiscated by the Guatemalan government for redistribution to landless peasants. Needing a rationale for intervening in the affairs of a sovereign state, Eisenhower invoked the fear off communism and the threat to the national security of the United States. Sound familiar. Eisenhower and his administration then spewed out a prodigious amount of propaganda condemning Guatemala as a threat to Guatemalans, the region, and to the United States. The pattern is the same. Decide on an action to preserve or expand the empire; lie about the rationale for those actions; then persuade the public to support your actions.

When President Johnson inherited the empire, his decisions were also designed to save it from the evil communists. The decision to preserve South Vietnam as an ostensibly free and democratic country independent of North Vietnam was decreed by previous emperors. The conundrum of winning the war in South Vietnam without committing more soldiers or resources was solved when a North Vietnamese ship purportedly fired on an American destroyer in the Gulf of Tonkin. President Johnson sent his Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, to lie about the incident to Congress who then passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution authorizing the President to make decisions about the war without consulting Congress. Again propaganda designed to “manufacture consent” filled the air waves and newspapers. The justification was that we had to stop the communist North from overtaking the South thereby threatening a strong communist presence in Southeast Asia. This analysis lacks the proverbial lower limb to support itself. There were no democracies in Southeast Asia. The Geneva Conventions of 1954 called for the reunification of North and South Vietnam followed by a vote but the Treaty was not signed by the Americans or their puppets in the South. The most grandiose lie was the myth that Americans and South Vietnamese were fighting the North. The original war was against the peasants in the South who were disillusioned with the brutal and corrupt Diem Regime. The same pattern repeated itself: decide on an action to maintain the empire; invent a justification; then persuade the public to support your decision.

President Reagan quickly donned the crown of emperor in 1981 and decided to overthrow the democratically elected government of Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua. Ortega was also implementing progressive reforms and refused to conform to the American economic model. There were no debates, careful analysis or investigations all of which would interfere with the preordained mission to save Nicaragua from the evil, communist Sandinistas. One attempt to provide a purportedly independent analysis involved the creation of a commission headed by Henry Kissinger who “surprisingly” discovered that Nicaragua was a threat to the region and the United States. As part of the ongoing propaganda campaign, President Reagan warned that Nicaragua was only a two day march to Brownsville Texas. If you think that Bush’s lies are outrageous, think about Reagan’s. Again, the plans were made without any real justification, then a rationale was devised to support Reagan’s Contra strategy, and finally a propaganda campaign consisting of the most outrageous lies drowned the airwaves.

President W. H. Bush learned his lessons well as head of the CIA and as Vice President under Reagan. The decision to bomb Iraq in 1991 was planned as a decision of empire without any legitimate cause. Bush engineered a cause by first encouraging Kuwait to increase its oil output driving down the price and then demanding that its $30 billion loan to Iraq be repaid immediately. Iraq was already in dire financial straits from its eight year war with Iran and couldn’t afford the drop in oil prices. Now that Iraq had a serious grievance against Kuwait, all it needed was a guarantee that the United States would not intervene. Saddam Hussein called a meeting with the American ambassador to Iraq, April Glaspie, who told Saddam that the United States was not interested in Arab-Arab conflicts. No sooner had Iraqi soldiers stepped foot on Kuwaiti soil than American threats bellowed across the Mediterranean warning Saddam to pull out of Kuwait. The propaganda campaign was very effective much of which was conducted by public relation firms. A fairytale surfaced about Iraqi soldiers grabbing babies from incubators in Kuwait and throwing them on the cold concrete floor. Then President Bush rebuffed all international attempts to negotiate with Iraq despite the fact that Iraq’s final offer was to withdraw Iraqi troops from Kuwait and to negotiate any outstanding issues. The pattern repeats itself. Decide to declare war on a country, fabricate the basis of your decision and then flood the American people with lies to win their support.

Clinton conforms completely to the paradigm. He decided along with NATO to dismantle the former Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, convince the public that Serbia had perpetrated ethnic cleansing against Bosnia and was now threatening the same in Kosovo, then bomb Serbia. As in other cases, Clinton refused any real negotiations and instead tabled an agreement that no sovereign country could possibly accept.

As is evident from the above examples, President W. Bush has acted no differently than other presidents. One major difference is that he has been caught with his hand in the cookie jar before he left office during a time when the military occupation of Iraq is becoming increasingly unpopular. I will reserve my sympathy for the more than 1600 Americans and over 100,000 Iraqis who have died since George W. bombed Iraq in 2003. Of course we could factor into the equation the 100,000 Iraqis who died in 1991 and the million or so who died from the sanctions and depleted uranium weapons.

All these presidents are guilty of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and maintaining the empire without concern for the cost in human life, human suffering and destruction of non-military targets.

By flagrantly flaunting international laws and international institutions, American presidents are eroding the international system for resolving disputes, maintaining peace and order, and civilizing human conduct during conflicts. As the Downing Street memo reveals, President Bush exploited the United Nations to suit his own purposes and undermined the credibility of the Security Council. His legal advisors have interpreted international law to excuse illegal behaviour. Their interpretation of defence in clause 51 in the UN Charter has no legal validity. The invention of new terms such as “preemptive strike” and “unlawful combatant” to redefine international law on the run has only served to undermine international law. Either the laws are amended through legitimate mechanisms or they remain in force. George W Bush and the other presidents are nothing more than vigilantes.

DAVID MODEL teaches political science and economics at Seneca College in Toronto. He is the author of People Before Profits: Reversing the Corporate Agenda (1997) with Captus Press; and Corporate Rule: Understanding and Challenging the New World Order (2002) with Black Rose Books. His new book Lying for Empire: How to commit war crimes with a straight face will be published by Common Courage Press in August. He can be reached at: