LONDON — Memo to those who opposed the war in Iraq: Please stop talking about the Downing Street memos! And I say that not as a defender of the war, but as one who was implacably set against it.
The antiwar lobby's obsession with secretive things - whether it's these latest memos, earlier dodgy dossiers, or rumors about who said what to whom in the backrooms of the White House and Whitehall - degrades the debate about war.
Instead of mounting a serious opposition to the invasion of Iraq, antiwar activists have spent the last two years searching endlessly for proof that they and their fellow citizens were lied to. They've seemed more intrigued by the decisionmaking processes that led to the war than outraged by the war itself.
That's nowhere more evident than in the antiwar movement's approach of challenging the war more on the basis of legalistic nitpicking than on the grounds that it was politically and morally the wrong thing to do. Political principles such as national sovereignty have barely been raised.
In the US, activists have speculated ad infinitum that the decision to invade Iraq was taken by Donald Rumsfeld or Paul Wolfowitz or maybe even President Bush at a high-level, top-secret meeting immediately after 9/11.
In Britain, there's been running commentary on whether Tony Blair's legal adviser warned him prior to the war that invading Iraq would be illegal, with various communiqués leaked and salivated over. There have also been two dossier controversies, stoked by antiwar elements, and of course the Hutton Inquiry into the prewar processes, during which 9,000 pages of documents submitted by the authorities to the inquiry - including everyday e-mails and memos from the highest echelons of government - were posted on the inquiry's website. Antiwar journalists had a field day.
The Downing Street Memos are but another chapter in - or perhaps even the climax of - this ongoing saga.
When the most infamous of these memos was first exposed in the London Sunday Times two months ago, antiwar activists heralded it as the "smoking gun" that finally proved President Bush was hell-bent on bombing Iraq, even while feigning to the public that every effort would be made to avoid war.
In case you haven't heard, the memo was written by a foreign policy aide in the British government on July 23, 2002 - eight months before the war started. Under the heading "SECRET AND STRICTLY PERSONAL - FOR UK EYES ONLY," he noted that "military action was now seen as inevitable" by US officials. What's more, the memo stated that the intelligence and facts relating to Saddam's alleged weapons of mass destruction "were being fixed around the policy."
Antiwar activists have relentlessly scrutinized this and subsequent memos, gloating over their finds. According to one antiwar website, "The [memo] reveals gross duplicity in the actions of both governments."
I find this creepy fascination with confidential communications irritating for three reasons:
First, you would have to be spectacularly naive to be shocked that powerful governments in the West had tinkered with the truth in order to launch a war. From the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin claims in Vietnam to the story about Kuwaiti babies being tossed from incubators in the run-up to the Gulf War of 1991, governments on the verge of war have always been less than honest.
It's been nearly 90 years since US Senator Hiram Johnson purportedly said, "The first casualty when war comes is truth," yet antiwar activists still seem to think that "Bush lied!" counts as a groundbreaking revelation.
Second, this search for a "smoking gun" indulges today's cynical climate, where governments are viewed - somewhat childishly - as evil cabals ruthlessly conspiring against their civilians. And critics seem so intrigued by what took place Behind Closed Doors, that they fail to offer a real, political challenge to what took place in public - in this instance, the invasion of a sovereign state.
Third, and worst of all, this focus on memos, dossiers, whispers, and rumors has reduced the discussion of war to a most vulgar clash.
The debate about Iraq ought to have been one of the most important of recent years: It ought to have been about sovereignty; democracy; whether it is ever possible to liberate a people from without; and whether the West has the right to interfere in another state's affairs.
Instead, thanks in large part to the antiwar movement, it has been a name-calling and mudslinging affair. So much energy has been expended on digging for dirt there is none left for offering a genuine alternative to Western military intervention abroad. Antiwar activists should be ashamed of themselves: Their petty obsessions have detracted from the debate we really need.
If you are against war, then forget about the Downing Street memos. The debate about war should be political and moral, not legalistic; we should interrogate the consequences of war for those on the receiving end, and for peace more broadly - not get hung up over what some British official wrote on a piece of paper.
In short, we need a political opposition to war - because, more than two years since Iraq was invaded, we still don't have one.
• Brendan O'Neill is deputy editor of the online magazine "spiked."