Imagine that the Pentagon Papers or the Watergate scandal had broken out all over the press -- no, not in the New York Times or the Washington Post, but in newspapers in Australia or Canada. And that, facing their own terrible record of reportage, of years of being cowed by the Nixon administration, major American papers had decided that this was not a story worthy of being covered. Imagine that, initially, they dismissed the revelatory documents and information that came out of the heart of administration policy-making; then almost willfully misread them, insisting that evidence of Pentagon planning for escalation in Vietnam or of Nixon administration planning to destroy its opponents was at best ambiguous or even nonexistent; finally, when they found that the documents wouldn't go away, they acknowledged them more formally with a tired ho-hum, a knowing nod on editorial pages or in news stories. Actually, they claimed, these documents didn't add up to much because they had run stories just like this back then themselves. Yawn.
This is, of course, something like the crude pattern that coverage in the American press has followed on the Downing Street memo, then memos. As of late last week, four of our five major papers (the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, and USA Today) hadn't even commented on them in their editorial pages. In my hometown paper, the New York Times, complete lack of interest was followed last Monday by a page 11 David Sanger piece (Prewar British Memo Says War Decision Wasn't Made) that focused on the second of the Downing Street memos, a briefing paper for Tony Blair's "inner circle," and began: "A memorandum written by Prime Minister Tony Blair's cabinet office in late July 2002 explicitly states that the Bush administration had made ‘no political decisions' to invade Iraq, but that American military planning for the possibility was advanced."
Compare that to the front-page lead written a day earlier by Michael Smith of the British Sunday Times, who revealed the existence of the document and has been the Woodstein of England on this issue (Ministers were told of need for Gulf war ‘excuse'):
"Ministers were warned in July 2002 that Britain was committed to taking part in an American-led invasion of Iraq and they had no choice but to find a way of making it legal. The warning, in a leaked Cabinet Office briefing paper, said Tony Blair had already agreed to back military action to get rid of Saddam Hussein at a summit at the Texas ranch of President George W Bush three months earlier."
The headlines the two papers chose more or less tell it all. It's hard to believe that they are even reporting on the same document. Sanger was obviously capable of reading Smith's piece and yet his report makes no mention of the April meeting of the two leaders in Crawford explicitly noted in the memo and offers a completely tendentious reading of those supposedly unmade "political decisions." Read the document yourself. It's clear, when the Brits write, for instance, "[L]ittle thought has been given [in Washington] to creating the political conditions for military action," that they are talking about tactics, about how to move the rest of the world toward an already agreed-upon war. After all, though it's seldom commented on, this document was entitled, "Cabinet Office paper: Conditions for military action," and along with the previously released memo was essentially a war-planning document. Both, for instance, discuss the American need for British bases in Cyprus and on the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia. It was, as well, focused on the creation of "an information campaign" and suggested that "[t]ime will be required to prepare public opinion in the UK that it is necessary to take military action against Saddam Hussein."
We are talking here about creating the right political preconditions for moving populations toward a war, quite a different matter from not having decided on the war. To write as if this piece reflected a situation in which no "political decisions" had been made (taking that phrase out of all context), without even a single caveat, a single mention of any alternative possible explanation, was bizarre, to say the least.