In the run-up to war, appearances are often deceiving. Official events may seem to be moving in one direction while policymakers are actually headed in another. On their own timetable, White House strategists implement a siege of public opinion that relies on escalating media spin. One administration after another has gone through the motions of staying on a diplomatic track while laying down flagstones on a path to war.
Seven years ago, President Clinton proclaimed that a U.S.-led NATO air war on Yugoslavia was starting because all peaceful avenues for dealing with the Serbian president, Slobodan Milosevic, had reached dead ends. The Clinton administration and the major U.S. media outlets failed to mention that Washington had handed Milosevic a poison-pill ultimatum in the fine print of the proposed Rambouillet accords — with Appendix B stipulating that NATO troops would have nearly unlimited run of the entire Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.
On Jan. 31, 2003 — five days before the ballyhooed speech by then-Secretary of State Colin Powell to the U.N. Security Council — the president held a private Oval Office meeting with Tony Blair. Summing up the discussion, which occurred nearly two months before the invasion of Iraq, the British prime minister’s chief foreign policy adviser David Manning noted in a memo: “Our diplomatic strategy had to be arranged around the military planning.” Meanwhile, President Bush and his top aides were still telling the public that they were pursuing all diplomatic channels in hopes of preventing war.
In late summer 2002, with momentum quickening toward an Iraq invasion, Newsweek foreign affairs columnist Fareed Zakaria urged the Bush administration to recognize the public-relations value of allowing U.N. weapons inspectors to spend some time in Iraq. “Even if the inspections do not produce the perfect crisis,” he wrote optimistically, “Washington will still be better off for having tried because it would be seen to have made every effort to avoid war.”
That kind of macabre ritual was underway on April 10 when the White House press secretary, Scott McClellan, told reporters: “The president has made it very clear that we’re working with the international community to find a diplomatic solution when it comes to the Iranian regime and its pursuit of nuclear weapons.” The quote appeared the next morning in a New York Times news article under a headline that must have pleased the war planners at the White House: “Bush Insists on Diplomacy in Confronting a Nuclear Iran.”