by Michael Clark

We’ve learned the hard way that we need to beware whenever statements coming from the Bush administration make no sense whatever. Yes, that is a broad category, and after their lunatic performance with Hurricane Katrina it is positively chock-a-block. But let’s wrench a few examples out of the drawer to see just how this dangerous gang behaves when its public pronouncements come untethered from any vestige of logic.

Like many reasonably alert people, I’d concluded before July 2002 that George Bush intended to have his war in Iraq. But I was—what, stunned, mystified, appalled?—when on March 17, 2003 he announced “Saddam Hussein and his sons must leave Iraq within 48 hours. Their refusal to do so will result in military conflict.” That made no sense whatever, as even a few journalists pointed out. Who could fathom this? What was the point in pushing for the return of weapons inspectors if, when they did return and set to work, Bush chose to pre-empt their mission by issuing an ultimatum? For that matter, where was the sense in demanding a second vote of the UN Security Council and then acting as if the Council’s opposition to war did not matter?

An explanation eventually came to light. The Downing Street Memo famously shows the ‘UN route’ was a charade intended to manufacture a plausible pretext for war. Several other leaked British documents substantiate that Tony Blair was indeed intent on ‘wrong-footing’ Hussein, and that he thought the optimal way was to use the UN as a stalking horse.

Just as strikingly, as I learned from perusing the new timeline, the Bush administration already was thinking along those lines more than six months earlier. Here are excerpts from a Dec. 2, 2001 report in the Observer Secret US plan for Iraq war (emphasis mine).

President George W. Bush has ordered the CIA and his senior military commanders to draw up detailed plans for a military operation that could begin within months....

Despite US suspicions of Iraqi involvement in the 11 September attacks, the trigger for any attack, sources say, would be the anticipated refusal of Iraq to resubmit to inspections for weapons of mass destruction under the United Nations sanctions imposed after the Gulf war....

A European diplomat said last week: 'In the past week the Americans have shut up about Iraqi links to 11 September and have been talking a lot more about their weapons programme.'

The US is believed to be planning to exploit existing UN resolutions on Iraqi weapons programmes to set the action off.

Here is a prime example, then, of what I call the Bush/Cheney Principle: There is always some scheme lurking behind perverse public pronouncements. To make sense of what is afoot, work backwards from what doesn’t make sense. In this case, somebody less naive than I, even without benefit of the Observer’s story, could have drawn the right conclusion from Bush’s odd behavior in March 2003. He really didn’t care to find out whether Hussein had WMD, and once the UN insisted on trying to do that, it became irrelevant in Bush’s view.

The timeline presents another intriguing example of out and out nonsense coming from the administration. It involves what ought to be a simple question: When did the rules of engagement change for the US pilots patrolling the No-fly Zone? We know that air operations became much more aggressive during 2002, but when precisely did DoD issue new orders?

I believe that the answer would reveal much about when Bush decided war with Iraq was inevitable. But just try to pry any answer, even a dishonest one, from the administration. Recently I asked John Walcott of Knight-Ridder whether his bureau had ever determined the precise date; he isn’t certain that they have. It would have been quite an achievement if they did. Donald Rumsfeld was spectacularly cagey when journalists pressed him again and again for the information in 2002.

At a press briefing on Sept. 16, 2002, Rumsfeld was asked (a) whether the ongoing air assaults on Iraq were laying the groundwork for an invasion, and (b) when the more aggressive rules had been introduced. This press briefing occured four days after the Center for Defense Information published an interview with RAdm Stephen Baker, who seemed to predict an invasion, saying “these strikes seem like a notable escalation of operations over the no-fly zones.”

On the 16th, Rumsfeld’s replies to both questions were evasive. As he avoided identifying the date for the rule change, Rumsfeld tried joking, then giving an absurdly long span of time within which it must have occurred (i.e. sometime within the last year), and later he ignored calls that he get back to reporters with the exact date. Rumsfeld even claimed he had no record of when he issued the new orders.

That is preposterous on the face of it. By itself, the secrecy shrouding the date shows that it is significant in some broader way to the administration. There are other clues that lead in the same direction. For one thing, the negative evidence is overwhelming. US pilots conducted ever more daring attacks upon Iraq during the summer of 2002—for example, the Sunday Express reported a massive raid to destroy the Iraqi command and control center on Aug. 6, an incursion over Baghdad on Aug. 7, followed by the seizure of several air bases inside Iraq on Aug. 8. But both UK and US defense officials were virtually mum about these activities, and when obliged to comment they portrayed all of them as simple responses to Iraqi provocations. In other words, the total lack of candor during this entire period is strong evidence that the armed forces knew that Bush was up to something that had to be kept secret.

Anyway, we can see from the timeline that Rumsfeld had maintained this kind of evasiveness over a long period. Already on May 23, 2002 Rumsfeld had been asked by Wolf Blitzer whether the US planes patrolling the No-fly Zone were now involved in serious combat: “Obviously there's no specific authorization from the President yet to take military action against the Iraqis. But you probably noticed in the last few days alone -- what? -- there were several incidents that the U.S. was shot at by Iraqi ground fire in the no-fly zones, and the U.S. shot right back. Is that situation heating up right now?” Rumsfeld replies, “No...There has not been any noticeable change in the recent period with respect to the frequency.” That appears to be inaccurate, to judge by the newly released RAF documents about the rise in joint UK/US air assaults during the summer of 2002.

So when were the rules of engagement changed for the No-fly Zone? I’d like to know, not least because the Bush administration would like for us not to.

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