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"...the President exhausted all possible means to resolve this--resolve the situation in Iraq peacefully."

The after-the-fact words of Scott McClellan, then Bush's press Secretary, from Jan. 12, 2004, expressing the standard Bush narrative of the lead-up to war.

In the real world, of course, the Bush administration never even considered any option except war. It was their first choice. It was the only choice that was ever on the table.

Years before the Bush administration had been elected, there was the Project for a New American Century, an assemblage of neo-con kooks who had, as its goal (simply stated), the imposition of a global Pax Americana. In pursuit of this, PNAC had openly advocated a war against Iraq going back at least as far as 1998. The key membership of PNAC included Bush's brother Jeb, and most of those who would go on to become the Bush administration's central players on Iraq.

As far back as 1999, Bush, himself, was talking about invading Iraq, as revealed by Bush friend and ghost-writer Mickey Herskowitz: "One of the things he said to me is 'One of the keys to being seen as a great leader is to be seen as a commander-in-chief.'... He said 'If I had a chance to invade Iraq, if I had that much [political] capital, I'm not going to waste it.'"

Bush was sworn into office in Jan. 2001. As Bush's first Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neil related, an attack on Iraq was the subject of the first national security meeting of the administration, only days after the inauguration, and it was already talked about as something they were definitely going to do:

"From the very first instance, it was about Iraq. It was about what we can do to change this regime. Day one, these things were laid and sealed... It was all about finding a way to do it. That was the tone of it. The president saying 'Go find me a way to do this.'"

This discussion continued at the next national security meeting two days later.

By March, Bush already had the Pentagon drawing up plans for how to divide up Iraq's oil among contractors. It's around this same time that the administration would begin to noticeably ramp up pressure on U.S. intelligence agencies with regard to Iraq, leading to what would become a lot of sloppy work.

Sept. 2001, the U.S. is hit by al Qaida terrorists. Within five hours of the attack, Donald Rumsfeld suggested that, though Iraq had nothing to do with it, it could be used as a pretext to attack Iraq. Paul Wolfowitz, his right hand, echoed the same sentiment. Bush, himself, also immediately began leaning on his advisors to come up with something to link Iraq to the attacks.

Sept. 17, six days after the attack, Bush signed a directive ordering the Pentagon to begin planning an invasion of Iraq. On the 19th and 20th, Rumsfeld assembled the Defense Policy Board for a series of meetings where they "animatedly discussed" the need to attack Iraq, to use the words of the Washington Post. Iraqi "exile leader" Achmed Chalabi was included in these meetings.

By March, 2002, Bush had signed a secret directive ordering the CIA to recruit and train special units, dubbed "Scorpions" to act as a paramilitary force inside Iraq when the U.S. invasion began. The war hawks start seriously putting the screws to the intelligence community, pressure that will increase exponentially as the year goes on.

By April 2002--nearly a year before the invasion, and five months before Bush and co. would begin hyping the prospect--the decision to invade was set in stone; Bush had sought and received a British commitment to the coming operation. At the same time, an escalating bombing campaign, designed to provoke an Iraqi response to use as pretext for war, was initiated and would continue until the invasion. This was months before congress had even considered military action.

On June 28, 2002, U.S. Central Command held an Iraq war planning conference with Britain and Australia.

The "Downing Street Memo," from July 23, 2002, describes, in blunt and unmistakable language, the conspiracy to try to provoke Saddam Hussein into some action that would act as a legal pretext for war. "Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy."

On August 13, General Tommy Franks--Centcom commander--held a discussion with the British about the idea of using a British invasion force through Turkey (which, when the attack on Iraq commenced, is exactly what happened).

The war had been a done deal for months--all that remained was to sell the public on it. On Aug. 26, Vice President Dick Cheney appears at a convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars in what proved to be a preview of the administration's argument for an invasion; in Sept., the full unveiling. Iraq in league with al Qaida. Iraq armed with WMDs. The intel community is now being pummeled to create product that supports the public statements of the war-hawks about Iraq.

The same month, Iraq agrees to allow UNMOVIC inspectors to return to Iraq, a setback to the U.S./British plot, which was premised on the hope that Saddam Hussein would balk at the idea of allowing inspectors to return. Meanwhile, the CIA manages to successfully recruit Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri, one of Saddam's most trusted inner circle. Bush, Cheney, and Condoleeza Rice initially greet the news with great enthusiasm. When, however, Sabri reveals that Iraq had no active WMD programs, all interest in what he has to say ceases. Tyler Drumheller, then the head of CIA's covert operations in Europe, says he expected the White House to be all over Sabri. Instead, "the group that was dealing with preparation for the Iraq war came back and said they're no longer interested."

Congress discovers that, though the administration is claiming to use intelligence as a pretext for war, the administration hasn't even requested a National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq (which would have been the first step, if intelligence was actually driving the policy). An NIE is ordered (only to pacify congress). What is produced is thrown together in mere days, and represents the intelligence communities' effort to provide something that would support the public claims made by the Bush administration, rather than any genuine effort at consensus. It's delivered to congress in Oct.. The timing is of some importance, because Bush apoligists, tasked with coming up with intel that supported Bush claims about intel, usually point to the NIE. In reality, the document was only assembled in Oct. 2002--as this timeline demonstrates, that was long after the decision to start a war had been made.

Another oft-quoted anecdote by Bush apologists is CIA director George Tenet's comment that the case against Iraq was a "slam dunk." This happened at a meeting with Bush in Dec. 2002. Tenet says his comment has been completely misrepresented, that what he was really saying was that it would be a "slam dunk" that the agency could make a better public case for the Iraq war than it had so far. This could be true, or it could be CYA-ism, but it isn't particulalry relevant in either event, because the decision to start a war had already been made long before it.

A remarkable meeting between Bush and Blair was held on January 31, 2003. Notes on the meeting made by David Manning, Blair's chief foreign policy advisor, show the two leaders kicking around ideas about how to provide a legal pretext for the war (still very much a concern of the British). Among other things, Bush suggests painting a U2 spy plane in UN colors and flying it over Iraq in an effort to get the Iraqis to fire on it. The possibility of getting a second UN resolution--one green-lighting an attack--is discussed, but Bush makes it very clear military action will follow, regardless of what the UN does. Most astonishingly, both Bush and Blair acknowledge that no WMDs had been found in Iraq by weapons inspectors, and both say they doubted any would be found! The date for the attack was set, by this point, and is referenced in the meeting.

And after all this (and much more--this timeline isn't even remotely comprehensive), Bush was still going before the public, pretending as if he didn't want a war, pretending as if Saddam Hussein was forcing his hand, and could still back down and avoid a conflict at any time, something he continued to do right up until launching the war. Some Bush quotes, starting 10 days after all of this, courtesy of Media Matters, who saved me the trouble of looking them up myself:

--On February 10 , Bush said, "If war is forced upon us -- and I say 'forced upon us,' because use of the military is not my first choice. ... But should we need to use troops, for the sake of future generations of Americans, American troops will act in the honorable traditions of our military and in the highest moral traditions of our country."

--On February 13 , Bush said, "Military force is always this nation's last option. Yet if force becomes necessary to disarm Iraq and enforce the will of the United Nations, if force becomes necessary to secure our country and to keep the peace, America will act deliberately, America will act decisively, and America will act victoriously with the world's greatest military."

--On February 20 , Bush said that the U.S. will act decisively "if military force becomes necessary to disarm Iraq." He further stated that the nation would liberate the people of Iraq "if war is forced upon us."

--On March 6 , Bush said, "I've not made up our mind about military action. Hopefully, this can be done peacefully."

--On March 8 , Bush said, "We are doing everything we can to avoid war in Iraq."

--On March 16 , Bush said, "Saddam Hussein can leave the country, if he's interested in peace. You see, the decision is his to make. And it's been his to make all along as to whether or not there's the use of the military."

--On March 17 , Bush said, "Should Saddam Hussein choose confrontation, the American people can know that every measure has been taken to avoid war, and every measure will be taken to win it."

On March 19, Bush ordered the invasion to begin.

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