LOS ANGELES — After about the 200th e-mail from a stranger demanding that I cease my personal coverup of something called the Downing Street Memo, I decided to read it. (By mentioning 200 e-mails, I don't intend to brag. I'm sure Tom Friedman got many more.) It's all over the blogosphere and Air America, the left-wing talk-radio network: This is the smoking gun of the Iraq war. It's proof positive that President Bush was determined to invade Iraq a year before he did so. The whole "weapons of mass destruction" concern was phony from the start, and the drama about inspections was just kabuki: going through the motions.
Although it's flattering to be thought personally responsible for allowing a proven war criminal to remain in office, in the end I don't buy the fuss. Nevertheless, I'm enjoying it, as an encouraging sign of the left's revival. Developing a paranoid theory and promoting it to the very edge of national respectability takes ideological self-confidence. It takes a critical mass of citizens with extreme views and the time and energy to obsess about them. It takes a promotional infrastructure and the discipline to settle on a story line, disseminate it, and stick to it.
It takes, in short, what Hillary Clinton once called a vast conspiracy. The right has had one for years. This overhang of extremists makes the moderates appear more reasonable. It has pulled the center of politics - where the media try to be and where compromises on particular issues end up - in a rightward direction. Listening to extreme views on your own side is soothing even if you would never express them and may not even believe them.
So cheers for the Downing Street Memo. But what does it say? It's a report on a meeting of British Prime Minister Tony Blair and some aides on July 23, 2002. The key passage summarizes "recent talks in Washington" by the head of British foreign intelligence (identified, John le Carré-style, as "C"). C reported that "military action was now seen as inevitable. Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy. ... There was little discussion in Washington of the aftermath after military action."
C's focus on the dog that didn't bark - the lack of discussion about the aftermath of war - was smart and prescient. But even on its face, the memo is not proof that Bush had decided on war. It states that war is "now seen as inevitable" by "Washington." That is, people other than Bush had concluded, based on observation, that he was determined to go to war. There is no claim of even fourth-hand knowledge that he had actually declared this intention. Even if "Washington" meant administration decisionmakers, rather than the usual freelance chatterboxes, C was only saying that these people believed that war was how events would play out.
Of course, if "intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy," rather than vice versa, that is pretty good evidence of Bush's intentions, as well as a scandal in its own right. And we know now that this was true. Fixing intelligence and facts to fit a desired policy is the Bush II governing style, especially concerning the Iraq war. But C offered no specifics, or none that made it into the memo. Nor does the memo assert that actual decisionmakers told him they were fixing the facts. Although the prose is not exactly crystalline, it seems to be saying only that "Washington" had reached that conclusion.
Of course, you don't need a secret memo to know this. Just look at what was in the newspapers on July 23, 2002, and the day before. Left-wing Los Angeles Times columnist Robert Scheer casually referred to the coming war as "much planned for." The New York Times reported Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's response to a story that "reported preliminary planning on ways the United States might attack Iraq to topple President Saddam Hussein." Rumsfeld effectively confirmed the report by announcing an investigation of the leak.
A Wall Street Journal commentary declared that "the drums of war beat louder." A dispatch from Turkey in The New York Times even used the same word, "inevitable," to describe the thinking in Ankara about the thinking in Washington about the decision "to topple President Saddam Hussein of Iraq by force."
Then there's poor Time magazine (cover date July 22 but actually published a week earlier), which had the whole story. "Sometime last spring the President ordered the Pentagon and the CIA to come up with a new plan to invade Iraq and topple its leader." Originally planned for the fall, the war was put off until "at least early next year" (which is when, in fact, it occurred).
Unfortunately, Time went on to speculate that because of a weak economy, the war "may have to wait - some think forever," and concluded that "Washington is engaged more in psy-war than in war itself."
Some people you have to hit over the head. Hey, you folks at Time, what about the Downing Street Memo?
• Michael Kinsley is the editorial and opinion editor of the Los Angeles Times © 2005 Los Angeles Times.