A June 24 Washington Times editorial dismissed the significance of the Downing Street memos' revelation that President Bush had decided to invade Iraq as early as the summer of 2002 by claiming that "[d]espite what he thought in private, the president still exhausted all available options in public," including two visits to the United Nations. But the memos indicate that Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair approached the U.N. at least partly in order to establish a legal basis for regime change, which was illegal under British law. The memos also provide evidence that Bush escalated bombing in Iraq in the hopes of provoking a military response from Saddam Hussein.
The Times wrote:
What is it that we learn here which we didn't already know? It's been clear for some time that the Bush administration was preparing to remove Saddam Hussein by force soon after September 11. Indeed, regime change was U.S. policy under the Clinton administration. Mr. [Rep. John] Conyers [D-MI] and others argue that Mr. Bush's public words masked his true intentions as revealed in the above passage. This could be true, but so what? Despite what he thought in private, the president still exhausted all available options in public. Mr. Blair, for better or worse, convinced Mr. Bush to take the matter to the United Nations, which he did -- twice.
Other memos indicate, however, that British and American leadership considered the United Nations an avenue to provide legal justification for an otherwise illegal invasion. A March 14, 2002, memo from Blair foreign policy advisor David Manning addressed "the U.N. dimension" of coalition-building. Manning wrote:
The issue of the weapons inspectors must be handled in a way that would persuade the European and wider opinion that the US was conscious of the international framework, and the insistence of many countries on the need for a legal base. Renwed [sic] refused [sic] by Saddam to accept unfettered inspections would be a powerful argument.
In a March 18, 2002, memo, Christopher Meyer, British ambassador to the United States, summarized a conversation with then-deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz. Meyer said he and Wolfowitz discussed the need to use weapons inspections to deceive, or "wrongfoot," Saddam Hussein -- presenting him with a U.N. ultimatum on inspections that he would reject, thereby providing justification for armed intervention. Meyer wrote: "I then went through the need to wrongfoot Saddam on the inspectors and the UN SCRs [Security Council Resolutions] and the critical importance of the MEPP [Middle East Peace Process] as an integral part of the anti-Saddam strategy."
The memos also indicate that even while Bush was ostensibly pursuing alternatives to war with Iraq, the U.S. military was applying "pressure on the regime" to force an armed response. The July 23, 2002, memo states: "The Defence Secretary [Geoff Hoon] said that the US had already begun 'spikes of activity' to put pressure on the regime." In a June 23 Los Angeles Times op-ed, Michael Smith, the London Times reporter who first revealed the memos, explained what "spikes of activity" meant:
Put simply, U.S. aircraft patrolling the southern no-fly zone were dropping a lot more bombs in the hope of provoking a reaction that would give the allies an excuse to carry out a full-scale bombing campaign, an air war, the first stage of the conflict.
British government figures for the number of bombs dropped on southern Iraq in 2002 show that although virtually none were used in March and April, an average of 10 tons a month were dropped between May and August.
But these initial "spikes of activity" didn't have the desired effect. The Iraqis didn't retaliate. They didn't provide the excuse Bush and Blair needed. So at the end of August, the allies dramatically intensified the bombing into what was effectively the initial air war.
The number of bombs dropped on southern Iraq by allied aircraft shot up to 54.6 tons in September alone, with the increased rates continuing into 2003.