Nicolas J S Davies

A collection of published articles and letters to policymakers regarding the crisis in United States foreign policy by Nicolas J S Davies.

Location: North Miami, Florida, United States

Saturday, February 25, 2006

The Trail from Downing Street to Washington

Published in Peace Review, Volume 18 No.1

Previously in Peace Review, I described in “From Nuremberg to Fallujah” how the war in Iraq constitutes aggression as it is defined under international law. At the time I was writing that report, discussions of legality within and between the U.S. and British Governments were closely guarded secrets, and I had to take their public statements as indications of their legal position.

Now, nine leaked British documents have laid bare the British side of those discussions and revealed that British Law Officers explicitly and consistently advised their government and their American counterparts of the illegality of the U.S. war-plan. In response to their advice, the two governments hatched a plan to create a legal pretext for war, but the plan failed at the U.N. Security Council, leaving them with a stark choice between legitimacy and war.

The United States government then attempted to claim legitimacy for the war based on a unilateral interpretation of the principle of “revival”: that the “formal ceasefire” declared in resolution 687 (1991) was conditional on Iraq’s ongoing compliance with the other terms of that resolution; and that Iraq’s alleged “material breach” of certain articles of that resolution could result in an automatic “revival” of the authorization of military force contained in resolution 678 (1990). This interpretation ignored the fundamental difference between the purpose of resolution 678 (1990) - the liberation of Kuwait from Iraqi occupation in 1990 - and the U.S. goal of regime change in Iraq in 2003.

Revival had been introduced to justify the establishment of the southern no-fly zone in August 1992, and it was sufficiently controversial that a ruling was requested of the U.N. Legal Counsel, Carl-August Fleischauer. He ruled that it was legitimate in that situation, involving limited, proportionate and arguably humanitarian action soon after the end of major hostilities. The United States and United Kingdom also cited revival as justification for military action in December 1998, but this did not gain the approval of the Security Council and Russia withdrew its ambassadors from Washington and London to protest their attacks on Iraq.

The British legal advisors rejected the American interpretation of revival as a justification for regime change in 2003, but both governments had long ago chosen war over legitimacy. The British documents show that they were committed to regime change in Iraq by April 2002. Britain’s Ministry of Defence and two senior U.S. generals have confirmed that offensive military operations began in May 2002, without authorization from the U.S. Congress, the British Parliament or the Security Council.

March 2002 - the first six documents

The first batch of six British documents date from March 2002 and they were leaked to the Daily Telegraph in September 2004. They include the following:

- An “Options Paper” written for Blair by his Defense and Overseas Secretariat;
- A “Legal Background Paper”;
- A memo from foreign policy advisor Sir David Manning to Blair on meetings with Condoleeza Rice;
- A memo from British Ambassador Sir Christopher Meyer to Manning regarding a meeting with Deputy Secretary Wolfowitz;
- A letter to Foreign Secretary Jack Straw from his Political Director Peter Ricketts;
- And a memo from Straw to Blair.

The Options Paper and Legal Background Paper, dated March 8th 2002, were evidently drawn up in response to an initiative on Iraq from Washington. The Options Paper spelled out two choices: toughening the containment policy or regime change. It called the latter “a new departure which would require the construction of a coalition and a legal justification” and went on to say, “A full opinion should be sought from the Law Officers if the above options are developed further…Of itself, Regime Change has no basis in international law.” On the American position, it said, “The U.S. has lost faith in containment”, and also, “Washington believes the legal basis for an attack on Iraq already exists.”

The Legal Background Paper explained that the U.S. Government had argued for interpretations of Security Council resolutions on Iraq that were neither supported by the language of those resolutions nor shared by other Council members. The no-fly zones were set up to protect the civilian population, and the paper rejected a U.S. claim that they could be used for a different purpose, to “enforce” the disarmament provisions of resolutions 687 and 688. The United States had also argued that an individual member state could make an independent determination that Iraq was in breach of Security Council resolutions without the agreement of the Council. The paper rejects this claim too, adding “We are not aware of any other State which supports this view.” While rejecting these unilateral U.S. positions, the paper does not address any legal justification the Americans may have advanced for regime change, which of course had no basis in any of these resolutions.

The memo from Manning to Blair on March 14th 2002, marked “Secret – Strictly Personal”, shows that Blair was by then committed to the U.S. policy of regime change, and insisted only that it be “very carefully done”:

“I had dinner with Condi on Tuesday; and lunch with her and an NSC team on Wednesday (to which Christopher Meyer also came). These were good exchanges, and particularly frank when we were one-on-one at dinner. We spent a long time at dinner on Iraq. It is clear that Bush is grateful for your support and has registered that you are getting flak.
I said that you would not budge in your support for regime change but you had to manage a press, a Parliament and a public opinion that was very different than anything in the States. And you would not budge in your insistence that, if we pursued regime change, it must be very carefully done and produce the right result. Failure was not an option. Condi’s enthusiasm for regime change is undimmed. But there were some signs, since we last spoke, of greater awareness of the practical difficulties and political risks…
…I think there is a real risk that the Administration underestimates the difficulties. They may agree that failure is not an option, but this does not mean they will avoid it.”

Chilling words, showing that Blair agreed to support regime change before even beginning the failed effort to construct a legal basis for it.

On March 17th 2002, Ambassador Meyer told Wolfowitz, “We backed regime change, but the plan had to be clever and failure was not an option… I then went through the need to wrongfoot Saddam on the inspectors and the UN SCRs and the critical importance of MEPP [Middle East Peace Process] as an integral part of the anti-Saddam strategy.” He reported all this to Manning in a memo marked “Confidential and Personal” on March 18th.

The notes from Ricketts to Straw and then from Straw to Blair on March 25th 2002 detail some of the problems the Foreign Office had identified in the American plan. Straw told Blair that the British strategy had to be based on international law and therefore on Iraq’s “flagrant breach” of its obligations under the U.N.-mandated inspections regime. He wrote, “I believe that a demand for the unfettered readmission of weapons inspectors is essential, in terms of public explanation, and in terms of legal sanction for any military action.” He warned of two “potential elephant traps”, namely the illegality of regime change, and the question of an additional mandate from the Security Council. “The U.S. are likely to oppose any idea of a fresh mandate. On the other side, the weight of legal advice here is that a fresh mandate may well be required.”

Two weeks later, Bush hosted Blair at his ranch in Texas. At the joint news conference after the meeting, he announced, “I explained to the Prime Minister that the policy of my government is the removal of Saddam, and that all options are on the table . . . The world would be better off without him and so will the future.” Bush was committed to this policy, and Blair was now committed to supporting it through a “clever plan” to generate support and provide legal justification. On May 5th, Time reported an incident at the White House from March 2002 that made Bush’s position even clearer. Some Republican senators were meeting with Rice when Bush stopped by for a chat. Somebody mentioned Saddam Hussein, to which Bush responded “Fuck Saddam! We’re taking him out.”

The British documents make it clear that Blair’s more nuanced public statements during this period were not honest. After diplomatically endorsing regime change, he told the press conference at Crawford, “How we now proceed in this situation, how we make sure that this threat that is posed by weapons of mass destruction is dealt with, that is a matter that is open. And when the time comes for taking those decisions we will tell people about those decisions”.

The Downing Street memo and briefing paper

The “Downing Street Memo” is actually the minutes of a “Prime Minister’s Meeting” on Iraq, attended by Blair and his advisors on July 23rd 2002. The “Cabinet Office paper” is an incomplete transcript of the paper that was distributed to the participants in preparation for this meeting.

The opening summary of the Cabinet Office paper invites ministers to “agree that the objective of any military action should be a stable and law-abiding Iraq”, but the four paragraphs on “Justification” (11-14) describe the equally elusive quest for a law-abiding United Kingdom and United States. The fundamental illegitimacy of U.S. policy is still the central problem: “U.S. views of international law vary from that of the U.K. and the international community. Regime change, per se, is not a proper basis for military action under international law.” And yet, “U.S. military planning unambiguously takes as its objective the removal of Saddam Hussein’s regime”.

The paper presciently describes the train-wreck that in fact occurred when the timetable for the invasion collided with the time required for thorough inspections in March 2003. Iraqi obstruction was essential to the pretext for war, but it would probably not happen in the early stages of the inspection process. This section of the paper concludes, “…We would be most unlikely to achieve a legal base for military action by January 2003”.

John Scarlett, the Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, stated at the outset of the meeting that only “massive military action” would be likely to accomplish regime change. Sir Richard Dearlove, the head of MI6, then told the meeting that there had been “a perceptible shift in attitude” in Washington and 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 the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.”

Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon spoke of “spikes of activity” that had already begun “to put pressure on the regime”. Most Americans can remember incidents from this period that were reported as Iraqi threats to allied aircraft patrolling the no-fly zones, with U.S. and British planes responding by targeting radar sites. Critics of U.S. policy suggested at the time that this was a cover for a low-grade bombing campaign to degrade Iraqi defenses in preparation for an invasion.

Britain’s Ministry of Defense has now published its figures for allied missions flown and tonnages of bombs dropped on Iraq between 2000 and 2002. The total tonnage of bombs dropped on Iraq in 2000 was 155 tons. This fell to 107 tons in 2001. By contrast, in six and a half months from May until the second week in November 2002, allied planes dropped 820 tons of bombs on Iraq (almost half the 1,700 tons dropped on Tokyo on March 9-10th 1945 that killed 100,000 people), including a massive air raid in September by a combined fleet of 100 planes.

On July 17th 2003, USAF General Michael Moseley, who commanded this bombing campaign, told an allied briefing at Nellis AFB in Nevada that it “laid the foundations” for the invasion, and General Tommy Franks has confirmed the nature and purpose of this campaign in his autobiography, “American Soldier”. The United States and Britain had already launched an undeclared air war.

Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said he understood that Bush was committed to war, but thought the timing was not yet decided. “But the case was thin. Saddam was not threatening his neighbors, and his WMD capability was less than that of Libya, North Korea or Iran. We should work up a plan for an ultimatum to Saddam to allow back in the U.N. weapons inspectors. This would also help with the legal justification for the use of force.”

Then it was Attorney General Lord Goldsmith’s turn. He said “that the desire for regime change was not a legal basis for military action. There were three possible legal bases: self-defense, humanitarian intervention, or UNSC authorization. The first and second could not be the base in this case.”

Then, “the Prime Minister said that it would make a big difference politically and legally if Saddam refused to allow in the U.N. inspectors. Regime change and WMD were linked in the sense that it was the regime that was producing the WMD…If the political context were right, people would support regime change. The two key issues were whether the military plan worked and whether we had the political strategy to give the military plan the space to work.” Ever the politician, Blair, like Bush, had a sense of what would work politically and saw legality as secondary to the military and political issues.

More reservations were expressed regarding the workability of the U.S. battle plan, and Straw urged discreetly exploring an ultimatum on the inspectors. He was confident that Hussein would play into their hands by “playing hardball with the U.N.” Hoon “cautioned that many in the U.S. did not think it worth going down the ultimatum route. It would be important for the Prime Minister to set out the political context to Bush.”

The minutes ended by concluding that "[w]e should work on the assumption that the U.K. would take part in any military action”, but that the extent of British participation was still in question. The Foreign Secretary would “discreetly work up the ultimatum to Saddam”, and “the Attorney-General would consider legal advice with FCO/MOD legal advisers”.

In the fall of 2002, Bush presented his ultimatum to the U.N.; he introduced his “doctrine of preemption” as part of the National Security Strategy of the U.S.A. (2002); and the U.S. Congress granted him almost unlimited power to make war.

Bush’s infamous State of the Union Speech was a litany of bogus claims. He referred to 81 mm. rocket casings as centrifuge parts although this had been ruled out by the IAEA, and to unaccounted-for 12-year-old chemical and biological agents as potent threats. Even if any of these items had remained, the only one with a shelf life of more than five years was mustard gas, which posed no strategic threat. Powell gave his equally disgraceful presentation to the Security Council, after reportedly throwing Lewis Libby’s first draft of it up in the air and saying “I’m not reading this. This is bullshit.” Proponents of peace debunked the lies, but Democrats and U.S. media organizations collaborated in the government’s efforts to marginalize serious questions and peaceful alternatives to war.

“Full advice from Attorney General on legality of Iraq war”

The last of the leaked British documents is the full legal advice given to Blair by Lord Goldsmith on March 7th 2003, twelve days before the war officially began. In this document, Goldsmith made it clear that U.S. officials had now adopted “revival” as their legal justification for war. He was clearly worried that unilateral interpretations of Security Council resolutions were being used as a lever to open the door to actions that were neither authorized by any of those resolutions nor otherwise consistent with international law.

He identified the following flaws in the American position:

(1) He rejected Bush’s doctrine of preemption relating to “danger in the future” as opposed to the “right to respond proportionately to an imminent attack.” He wrote, “This is not a doctrine which, in my opinion, exists or is recognized in international law”.

(2) While accepting the basic principle of “revival”, he wrote, “the U.K. has consistently taken the view (as did the Fleischauer opinion) that . . . it is for the Council to assess whether any such breach of those obligations has occurred”, and “only the Council can decide if a violation is sufficiently serious to revive the authorization to use force.”

(3) He rejected the possibility that, because the U.S. interpreted resolution 1441 differently from Britain and other Council members, the resolution might not legally constrain the U.S. to the same extent as the U.K.

(4) The American interpretation “reduces the role of the Council discussion under OP12 (of resolution 1441) to a procedural formality… I remain of the opinion that this would be the effect in legal terms of the view that no further resolution is required. The Council would be required to meet, and all members would be under an obligation to participate in good faith, but even if an overwhelming majority of the Council were opposed to the use of force, military action could proceed regardless”.

(5) He insisted that any military action be limited to what was necessary to enforce the terms of the cease-fire. As he had said all along, “Regime change cannot be the objective of military action”.

There are a number of additional flaws in the principle of revival and in Goldsmith’s interpretation of these resolutions:

(1) The concept of “revival” has no basis in the language of resolutions 678 (1990) or 687 (1991). The “formal ceasefire” was neither temporary nor conditional on Iraq’s future behavior nor was there any provision for a “revival” of the authorization of military force.

(2) Revival, as proposed by the United States, is superfluous or even detrimental to any legitimate purpose since the Security Council already has all the power it needs to authorize military action whenever that is really what it means to do.

(3) Goldsmith writes that he relies on “the previous practice of the Council” for his interpretation that “serious consequences” in resolution 1441 (2002) is equivalent to “all necessary means” in resolution 678 (1990). This is not borne out by the record. The past practice of the Council has been to use “all necessary means” to authorize military force, and “serious consequences” to retain greater flexibility, and this was how other members interpreted these terms in this case.

While Goldsmith gave great deference to the strength and sincerity with which the Americans presented their arguments, he did not ultimately find their position defensible under international law, and he warned Blair of several legal avenues by which he and the British government could face prosecution for international aggression or murder. When the invasion proceeded in the face of the British legal officers’ consistent objections, Elizabeth Wilmshurst, Deputy Legal Advisor to the Foreign Office, resigned along with two of her colleagues. Her letter of resignation has since been made public. It referred to the invasion as a “crime of aggression”, and ended, “I joined the office in 1974. It has been a privilege to work here. I leave with very great sadness”.


The upshot of all this has been precisely what the U.N. Charter was designed to prevent: the invasion and occupation of a smaller country by two larger and more powerful ones, leading to an intractable war whose principal victims are the civilian population of Iraq. Researchers from the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health have estimated that at least 100,000 civilians have died, and have concluded that U.S. and British air strikes have been the leading cause of violent death among civilians in Iraq since March 2003. This latter conclusion is supported by Iraqi Health Ministry reports and dramatically contradicts the impression conveyed by the embedded media that anti-American forces have been responsible for most of the violence since the invasion.

Most American and British commentators regard the current crisis as a problem for the United States and Britain to solve, presuming a non-existent legitimacy in the powerful position these countries now occupy in Iraq. The British documents make it clear that the crisis would be more realistically viewed as an international crime in progress. Like any victim of aggression, Iraq is entitled to the full protections of international law, and should therefore now be the object not of some new American or British scheme, but of international diplomatic action to bring about the withdrawal of occupation forces and the restoration of its independence with the full assistance of the international community.

Recommended reading:


- Falk, Richard A. 1971. Crimes of War. New York: Random House.


- Smith, Michael. September 18th 2004. “Failure is not an option, but it doesn’t mean they will avoid it”. The Daily Telegraph.
- April 6th 2002, “Transcript of Bush-Blair news conference”.
- May 1st 2005, “The secret Downing Street memo”. The Sunday Times.
- June 12th 2005, “Cabinet Office paper: Conditions for military action”. The Sunday Times.
- April 28th 2005, “Full advice from Attorney General on legality of Iraq war”. The Times.
- March 24th 2005, “Wilmshurst resignation letter”.
- Les Roberts et al. 2004. “Mortality before and after the 2003 invasion of Iraq: cluster sample survey”. The Lancet (November): Volume 364.


- Cassese, Antonio. 2003. “Other International Crimes (Aggression, Torture, and Terrorism)” in Cassese, International Criminal Law. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Letter to Andrew Krepinevich on U.S. defense policy

Andrew F. Krepinevich
Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments
1730 Rhode Island Avenue NW, Suite 912
Washington DC 20036

Sunday, February 5th, 2006

Dear Mr. Krepinevich,

I am writing in response to your recently published report, “The Quadrennial Defense Review: Rethinking the U.S. Military Posture”. I also have been thinking and writing about the current crisis in U.S. foreign and defense policy, and I share your concerns that “the first-order factors that define this environment (be) properly identified”, and that “Failure to accomplish this runs the risk that defense planners will craft a defense posture for the “wrong” future”.

I will divide my comments into three areas, although you will see that I consider them to be inextricably connected:

1) International legitimacy.
2) The “War on Terror”.
3) The right future.

International Legitimacy

The current crisis in United States foreign and defense policy is, at its heart, a crisis of legitimacy that affects our country’s relations with every potential ally, trading partner or eventual enemy. The Defense Strategy of the U.S.A. (2005) threatens unilateral military action against “gathering threats”, “emerging challenges”, “to deny an opponent the strategic initiative” and to “defeat adversaries at the time, place, and in the manner of our choosing – setting the conditions for future security”. However, none of these constitute legitimate bases for military action under international law. The United States Constitution defines international treaties as part of the Supreme Law of the Land, so that this policy can also be viewed as unconstitutional under U.S. law.

The prohibition against the first use of force absent “a necessity of self-defense, instant, overwhelming, leaving no choice of means, and no moment for deliberation” dates back to the Caroline incident in 1837. In response to the slaughter of the twentieth century, the prohibition against aggression or “war as an instrument of national policy” was formalized in the Kellogg Briand Pact, the U.N. Charter and the London Treaty, all of which are current treaties in force.

Not even our closest ally, the United Kingdom, recognizes President Bush’s so-called “doctrine of preemption”. Twelve days before the invasion of Iraq, in his “full legal advice to the Prime Minister”, U.K. Attorney General Lord Goldsmith wrote, “This is not a doctrine which, in my opinion, exists or is recognized in international law”. Three British Foreign Office law officers resigned when the invasion of Iraq proceeded over their repeated and consistent advice that it would not be legal.

The practical consequences of renouncing international legitimacy affect U.S. policy at every turn. Eighty-two percent of Iraqis reject our illegal occupation of their country, according to a British Ministry of Defence survey; the people of Haiti will vote to restore the democratically-elected Parti Lavallas government as soon as they are allowed to do so; our senior officials travel the world in vain seeking allies for illegal military operations in Iraq, Iran and elsewhere; and the European Union and individual European countries are investigating crimes committed by U.S. forces and intelligence agents, issuing international arrest warrants where appropriate.

Like other assessments published by the Department of Defense, your report places great emphasis on the role of allies in U.S. defense policy, but it fails to openly confront the inevitable difficulty of seeking allies for illegal international behavior and policy. Your report offers no way out of this cul-de-sac, let alone the self-evident one of actually restoring legitimacy to U.S. defense policy.

Despite our leaders’ obtuse determination to reject the collective wisdom of generations of statesmen, diplomats and international lawyers, we are already confronting many of the reasons why the threat of aggression or “preemption” was taken off the international table in the first place. Threats invariably overshadow and poison efforts at conflict resolution, as its deadly logic demands that threats be backed up in order to be credible, while the targets must likewise dig in their heels to prove that they are not intimidated.

Once “all options are on the table”, time and patience become the enemies of would-be aggressors, because they permit potential targets to prepare their defenses as Iran, North Korea, Russia, China and others have been doing in response to our current military posture. The pressure to strike first will present itself again and again, not because it can solve the problems at hand or lead to any ultimate victory, but because the inexorable logic of preemption traps the perpetrator between the jaws of aggression and impotence. No student of military and diplomatic history can fail to recognize the horribly familiar road that our present leaders have chosen.

I am enclosing a copy of my essay “From Nuremberg to Fallujah” from a recent edition of Peace Review. It provides a fuller discussion of current international law regarding aggression and its implications for U.S. policy in Iraq and elsewhere.

The War on Terror

For forty years, most of the world accepted the basic premise of the Cold War, that each country faced a choice between alliance with the United States or alliance with the Soviet Union, and that the former offered greater opportunities for personal freedom, prosperity and political self-determination.

President Bush has tried to frame the “War on Terror” in similar terms, linking it rehetorically to “freedom” and “democracy”, and challenging countries to side “with us or against us”. The American public is increasingly sceptical of this rationale, and most of the rest of the world has already rejected it. People understand that this “war” is a political device; that real terrorists can only be stopped by wholehearted and efficient international cooperation among intelligence and police agencies; and that past and present U.S. policies have contributed significantly to the recent growth of “retail” terrorism as a global problem.

Edward Herman has written clearly for many years of the similarities and differences between “wholesale” state terrorism and “retail” terrorism by non-state actors, as well as the causal relationships between them. He has explained that both forms of terrorism seek to terrorize civilian populations by the use and threat of violence, and that states have an interest in portraying state terrorism as “retaliation” without acknowledging that “retail” terrorists are motivated by similar impulses.

The propaganda value of these distinctions must not prevent serious analysts from honestly appraising the role of U.S. government policies in the proliferation of both forms of terrorism. The September 11th hijackers were recruited and trained by people who were in turn trained by the C.I.A. in Pakistan in the 1980s. In 1963, the C.I.A. identified hundreds of Iraqis who might overthrow the new Baathist regime… and made sure that every one of them was eliminated. Democracy was taking root in Iran in 1953…until we intervened. So, what future problems will our present illegitimate policies create? How can we break this cycle of destructive behavior? Surely the increasing urgency of this problem constitutes a first-order factor in the defense environment.

Your discussion of nuclear proliferation did not mention the Israeli nuclear weapons that are one of the prime motives for Iran and other countries in the region to develop similar deterrents. Unqualified U.S. support for illegal Israeli behavior consistently undermines the legitimacy of Israeli and U.S. policy in the region, even as most Americans favor an even-handed and legitimate policy towards Israel and Palestine (CCFR Globalviews Survey, 2004).

Many of the most brutal tactics employed by U.S. and U.S.-trained forces in Iraq were originally developed by the Israelis in the laboratory of wholesale and retail terrorism in the Palestinian territories. These include mass detentions; “precision” aerial attacks in urban areas; extrajudicial executions; specific techniques of interrogation and torture that include humiliation of a sexual and excretory nature; and collective punishment in the form of embargos on food, water and medicine and the destruction of homes and infrastructure. The election of Hamas in Palestine is a good indication of where these tactics will lead if we continue to employ them elsewhere.

Finally, if we evaluate the “war on terror” according to its nominal objective of countering global “retail” terrorism, it would be hard to find a policy that has failed more spectacularly. The National Counterterrorism Center reported 625 incidents worldwide (not counting Iraq) in 2004, a 257% increase from the previous year’s record total of 175 incidents. The Secretary of State responded to this report by discontinuing the annual reporting of these figures.

The Right Future

I hope I have made clear why I feel that international legitimacy and the need for a more honest and realistic response to all forms of terrorism, including “wholesale” terrorism by our own government and its allies, constitute “first-order factors” in the U.S. defense environment. The rationale for our country’s illegitimate and, in many ways, counterproductive defense posture has its roots in a certain analysis of the post-Cold war world suggested by Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle and others. Essentially, they believed that the United States could use its military superiority to extend its position of global leadership throughout the world and into the next century by a more assertive military posture beyond the constraints of international law.

Like the other factors I have discussed, this proposition deserves serious analysis free from wishful thinking and exceptionalism, taking into account the predictable ways that other countries will respond to U.S. behavior. Your discussion of “reassurance” goes further in this respect than Paul Wolfowitz has, acknowledging that American strength will only have the effect of reassuring allies as long as it is seen as an essentially benign force in the world. Unfortunately the invasion of Iraq and the illegitimate defense strategy crafted by Wolfowitz and others have already dangerously eroded this perception.

The contradiction inherent in this proposition from the outset was that the government of a single state can simultaneously fulfill its duty to represent the interests of its own people while at the same time representing the collective security interests of the entire world. This brings us back once again to the necessity for a legitimate framework that can accomodate these competing interests.

Other governments understand our political system and have generally adopted a “wait-and-see” attitude to our present illegitimate posture. They know that a new administration will eventually take office, and hope for a less belligerent and more rational U.S. policy in the relatively near future. Like most Americans, they believe that our leaders are capable of learning from the policy failures of their political opponents, and they have no interest in jeopardizing long-standing relationships with the United States over the mistakes of one administration.

In many ways, therefore, the full repercussions of the present U.S. posture will only become evident if the next administration, particularly a Democratic one, continues the same illegitimate and dangerous policies. It is crucial for analysts like yourself to understand this and to introduce realistic alternatives into our country’s discourse on these matters before the next administration takes office.

As for the prospects for a “new American century”, a sober reading of history such as Paul Kennedy’s in “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers” makes it clear that economic factors dictate an ebb and flow to world affairs, in which rising powers enjoy distinct structural advantages over established ones. At present the Chinese economy is expected to surpass the U.S. economy as the largest in the world at some point in the next fifty years. The historical record of efforts to prolong economic dominance by military force is not good. At best, it has resulted in debilitating “overstretch”. At its worst, it has produced some of the most widespread and destructive conflicts in human history.

In this context, it is clear that China has no more interest in military confrontation today than the United States did under its Open Door policy a century ago. Indeed its long-term interests are served by mitigating the worst effects of confrontations between the United States and its various nemeses. Should China ever be faced with military confrontation, its strategy would be to divert its vast resources in a timely fashion as the United States did in the twentieth century rather than arming prematurely with equipment that would be obsolete by the time it was tested in battle (like Fascist Italy).

If there is a model for the succesful transition from dominance to prosperous and peaceful co-existence, it is the United Kingdom in the twentieth century (although its people would wish to have avoided at least the First World War). In 1889, the Royal Navy formalized a policy of maintaining at least the same tonnage as the next two navies in the world combined (France and Russia at that point). By the time my father retired from the R.N. in 1971 as a Surgeon Commander, there was no longer any overseas or shipboard posting available to a medical officer of his rank. And yet the U.K. is today a prosperous country, generally at peace with the world. It has found life after hegemony.

The key to this succesful transition was the U.K.’s special relationship with the United States. The U.S. was able to grow its economy to a dominant position as the European powers exhausted theirs in two world wars, and the wartime alliance between the U.K. and the U.S. provided the basis for a peaceful transition of power. This was never without friction, as the U.S. supplanted the U.K. in Latin America, the Middle East and elsewhere, but British leaders were pragmatic enough to swallow their losses, preserving many of the commercial benefits of empire in the Commonwealth while developing a new role as a junior partner in the American expansion.

A transfer of power from the United States to China is not a prospect that Americans would welcome. But another future is possible, one that involves neither a war for hegemony nor decline and fall. Incredibly, it is a future that was foreseen and provided for in the system designed by Franklin Roosevelt and his advisors as they contemplated the world they would build at the end of the Second World War. Ironically, it depends on the very principles and institutions that members of the current administration have dismissed as “irrelevant” and “quaint”.

The present system of international law, centered around the United Nations and its Charter, was designed as a framework for peace and collective security, and embodies many of the same principles as American democracy, balancing the respective rights and aspirations of individuals, states and the international community as a whole. The present weakness of this system is directly attributable to the failure of its most powerful member, the United States, to honor its commitment to its laws and institutions and to its ultimate success.

Were the United States to recommit itself to these principles and institutions with the wisdom and circumspection that Roosevelt and his colleagues brought to their original design, they could serve as a solid but flexible framework for a transition to a multipolar world, in which the United States would play an important role commensurate with its economic and military power and its values and interests within a universally accepted framework. Your three pillars of defense strategy would stand firmly on a foundation of international legitimacy.

The role of the U.S. military in such a “right” future would be different in many respects than that described in your paper. It would once again operate within clear guidelines, in which options were circumscribed by legitimacy rather than by fickle political and commercial expediency. It could once again play a leadership role among allies united by a common interest in peace and stability. It could withdraw from bases and deployments where its presence has become redundant or counterproductive. Young Americans could volunteer to serve in the military knowing that their political leaders would only place their lives in jeopardy for the legitimate defense of the United States and the cause of peace.

I hope you have found the time to read this letter, and that you will give serious thought to the issues I have raised. I believe that this is a critical time for our country and the world, and that we are indeed faced with a choice between preparing for the wrong or the right future. I am sure that you can help us to choose and prepare for the right future by incorporating the additional first-order factors I have identified into your future assessments of U.S. defense policy.

Yours sincerely

Cc: Congressman Kendrick Meek (House Armed Services Committee)

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Burying the Lancet Report...and the Children

Published by Online Journal:
Revised version published in Z Magazine (February 2006):

Over a year ago, an international team of epidemiologists headed by Les Roberts of Johns Hopkins School of Public Health completed a “cluster sample survey” of civilian casualties in Iraq ( Its findings contradicted central elements of the narrative of the war that politicians and journalists had presented to the American public and the world. After excluding the results from Anbar province as a statistical anomaly and half the increase in infant mortality as possible “recall bias”, they estimated that at least 98,000 Iraqi civilians had died in the previous eighteen months as a direct result of the invasion and occupation of their country. They also found that violence had become the leading cause of death in Iraq during that period, accounting for most of the excess deaths. However, their most significant finding was that the majority of violent deaths were caused by “coalition” forces using “helicopter gunships, rockets or other forms of aerial weaponry”, and that almost half of these were children, with a median age of eight.

When the team’s findings were published in the Lancet, the official journal of the British Medical Association, they caused quite a stir, and it seemed that the first step had been taken toward a realistic accounting of the human cost of the war. The authors made it clear that their results were approximate; they discussed the limitations of their methodology at length and emphasized that further research would be invaluable in giving a more precise picture.

A year later, we do not have a more precise picture. Soon after the study was published, American and British officials launched a concerted campaign to discredit its authors and marginalize their findings without seriously addressing the validity of their methods or presenting any evidence to challenge their conclusions. Today the continuing aerial bombardment of Iraq is still a dark secret to most Americans, and the media still present the same general picture of the war, focusing on what appear in the light of this study to be secondary sources of violence.

Les Roberts has been puzzled and disturbed by this response to his work, which stands in sharp contrast to the way the same governments responded to a similar study he led in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2000. In that case, he reported that about 1.7 million people had died during 22 months of war, and as he says, “Tony Blair and Colin Powell quoted those results time and time again without any question as to the precision or validity”. In fact, the U.N Security Council promptly called for the withdrawal of foreign armies from the Congo, and the U.S. State Department cited his study in announcing a grant of $10 million for humanitarian aid.

Roberts conducted a follow-up study in the Congo that raised the fatality estimate to 3 million, and Tony Blair cited that figure in his address to the 2001 Labor Party Conference. However, in December 2004, Blair dismissed the epidemiological team’s work in Iraq, claiming that, “Figures from the Iraqi Ministry of Health, which are a survey from the hospitals there, are in our view the most accurate survey there is”.

This statement by Blair is particularly interesting because the Iraqi Health Ministry reports whose accuracy he praised have in fact confirmed the Johns Hopkins team’s conclusion that aerial attacks by “coalition” forces are the leading cause of civilian deaths. One such report was cited by Nancy Youssef in the Miami Herald on September 25th 2004 under the headline “U.S. Attacks, Not Insurgents, Blamed for Most Iraqi Deaths”. The Health Ministry had been reporting civilian casualty figures based on reports from hospitals, as Mr. Blair said, but it was not until June 2004 that it began to differentiate between casualties inflicted by “coalition” forces and those from other causes. In the three months from June 10th to September 10th it counted 1,295 civilians killed by U.S. forces and their allies and 516 killed in “terrorist” operations. Health Ministry officials told Ms. Youssef that the “statistics captured only part of the death toll”, and emphasized that aerial bombardment was largely responsible for the higher numbers of deaths caused by the “coalition”. The overall breakdown is remarkably close to that attributed to coalition forces in the Lancet survey.

BBC World Affairs Editor John Simpson reported on another Health Ministry report that covered the six months from July 1st 2004 to January 1st 2005. This report cited 2,041 civilians killed by U.S. and allied forces versus 1,233 by “insurgents”. Then something strange but sadly predictable happened. The Iraqi Health Minister’s office contacted the BBC and claimed in a convoluted and confusing statement that their figures had somehow been misrepresented; the BBC issued a retraction; and details of deaths caused by “coalition” forces have been notably absent from subsequent Health Ministry reports.

So, the British and American governments and the U.N. responded positively to Roberts’ work in the Congo, and Iraqi Health Ministry reports support his findings in Iraq in spite of official efforts to suppress them. Official and media criticism of his work has focused on the size of his sample, 988 homes in 33 clusters distributed throughout the country, but other epidemiologists reject the notion that this is controversial.

Michael O’Toole, the director of the Center for International Health in Australia, says: “That’s a classical sample size. I just don’t see any evidence of significant exaggeration… If anything, the deaths may have been higher because what they are unable to do is survey families where everyone has died.”

David Meddings, a medical officer with the Department of Injuries and Violence Prevention at the World Health Organization, said surveys of this kind always have uncertainty but “I don’t think the authors ignored that or understated. Those cautions I don’t believe should be applied any more or less stringently to a study that looks at a politically sensitive conflict than to a study that looks at a pill for heart disease”.

Les Roberts himself has also compared his work in Iraq to other epidemiological studies: “In 1993, when the U.S. Centers for Disease Control randomly called 613 households in Milwaukee and concluded that 403,000 people had developed Cryptosporidium in the largest outbreak ever recorded in the developed world, no one said that 613 households was not a big enough sample. It is odd that the logic of epidemiology embraced by the press every day regarding new drugs or health risks somehow changes when the mechanism of death is their armed forces.”

The campaign to discredit Les Roberts, the Johns Hopkins team and the Lancet employed the same methods that the U.S. and British governments have used consistently to protect their monopoly on “responsible” story telling about the war. By dismissing the study’s findings out of hand, U.S. and British officials created the illusion that they were suspect or even politically motivated and discouraged the media from taking them seriously. This worked disturbingly well. Even opponents of the war continue to cite much lower figures for civilian casualties and innocently attribute the bulk of them to Iraqi resistance forces or “terrorists”.

The figures most often cited for civilian casualties in Iraq are those collected by Iraqbodycount, but its figures are not intended as an estimate of total casualties. Its methodology is to count only those deaths that are reported by at least two “reputable” international media outlets in order to generate a minimum number that is more or less indisputable. Its authors know that thousands of deaths go unreported in their count, and say they cannot prevent the media misrepresenting their figures as an actual estimate of deaths. I have asked them several times to be more active in challenging such misrepresentations, but I have to acknowledge that the misrepresentations are so widespread that this would be quite a task.

Beyond the phony controversy regarding the methodology of the Lancet report, there is one genuine issue that really does cast doubt on its findings. This is the decision to exclude the cluster in Fallujah from its computations due to the much higher number of deaths that were reported there (even though the survey was completed before the widely reported assault on the city in November 2004). Roberts wrote in a letter to the Independent, “Please understand how extremely conservative we were: we did a survey estimating that ~285,000 people have died due to the first 18 months of invasion and occupation and we reported it as at least ~100,000”.

The dilemma he faced was this: in the 33 clusters surveyed, 18 reported no violent deaths (including one in Sadr City), 14 other clusters reported a total of 21 violent deaths, and the Fallujah cluster alone reported 52 violent deaths. This last number is conservative in itself, because, as the report stated, “23 households of 52 visited were either temporarily or permanently abandoned. Neighbors interviewed described widespread death in most of the abandoned homes but could not give adequate details for inclusion in the survey”.

Leaving aside this last factor, there were three possible interpretations of the results from Fallujah. The first, and indeed the one Roberts adopted, was that the team had randomly stumbled on a cluster of homes where the death toll was so high as to be totally unrepresentative and therefore not relevant to the survey. The second possibility was that this pattern among the 33 clusters, with most of the casualties falling in one cluster and many clusters reporting zero deaths, was in fact an accurate representation of the distribution of civilian casualties in Iraq under “precision” aerial bombardment. The third possibility is that the Fallujah cluster was atypical, but not sufficiently abnormal to warrant total exclusion from the study, so that the number of excess deaths was in fact somewhere between 100,000 and 285,000. Without further research, there is no way to determine which of these three possibilities is correct.

No new survey of civilians killed by “coalition” forces has been produced since the Health Ministry report last January, but there is strong evidence that the air war has intensified during this period. Independent journalists have described the continuing U.S. assault on Ramadi as “Fallujah in slow motion”, devastating the city block by block. Smaller towns in Anbar province have been targets of air raids for the past several months, and towns in Diyala and Baghdad provinces have also been bombed. Seymour Hersh has covered the “under-reported” air war in the New Yorker and writes that the current U.S. strategy is to embed U.S. Special Forces with Iraqi forces to call in U.S. air strikes as U.S. ground forces withdraw from Iraq, opening the way for heavier bombing with even less media scrutiny (if that is possible).

One ignored feature of the survey’s results is the high number of civilian casualties reported in Fallujah in August 2004. It appears that U.S. forces took advantage of the media focus on Najaf at that time to conduct very heavy attacks against Fallujah. This is perhaps a clue to the strategy by which they have conducted much of the air war. The heaviest bombing and aerial assault at any given time is likely to be somewhere well over the horizon from any well-publicized U.S. military operation, possibly involving only small teams of Special Forces on the ground. But cynical military strategy does not let the media off the hook for their failure to find out what is really going on and tell the outside world about it. Iraqi and other Arab journalists can still travel through most of the country and news editors should pay close attention to their reports from areas that are too dangerous for Western reporters.

A second feature of the epidemiologists’ findings that has not been sufficiently explored is the one suggested above by Michael O’Toole. Since their report establishes that aerial assault and bombardment is the leading cause of violent death in Iraq, and since a direct hit by a Mark 82 500 lb bomb will render most houses uninhabitable, any survey that disregards damaged, uninhabited houses is sure to underreport deaths. This should be taken into account by any follow-up studies.

Thanks to Les Roberts, his international team, Johns Hopkins School of Public Health and the editorial board of the Lancet, we have a clearer and very different picture of the violence taking place in Iraq than that presented by the “mainstream” media. Allowing for an additional sixteen months of the air war and other violence since the publication of the Lancet report, we can now estimate that somewhere between 200,000 and 700,000 people have died as a direct result of the war, that 70,000 to 500,000 of them have been killed by “coalition” forces, and that 30,000 to 250,000 of these were children below the age of fifteen.

Les Roberts has cautioned me to remember that all the excess deaths are the result of the war, not just those attributed to coalition forces. Whether someone is killed by a bomb, a heart attack during an air strike, or in a car accident fleeing the chaos, those who initiated this terrible war and have subsequently chosen to "stay the course" bear the overall responsibility.

If you find yourself troubled or torn between accepting the “official story” of the war and the picture that emerges from the Lancet report, I would suggest the following. Both versions of events are efforts to tell a story or paint a picture from a patchwork of samples or snapshots taken in different parts of Iraq. However, the way that the samples are selected and pieced together is very different. In one case, the choice of samples and the way they are put together is clearly influenced and circumscribed by powerful political, military and commercial interests. In the other, the samples were chosen according to objectively established epidemiological practice, and the results were analyzed with scientific rigor.

As someone who has followed the reporting of this war very closely, I find the results of the study to be consistent with the picture that I have seen gradually emerging as the war has progressed, based upon the work of courageous reporters and glimpses through the looking glass as more and more cracks appear in the “official story”. We are still left with civilian casualty figures that can only be described by very wide ranges. The responsibility for the failure to obtain more precise casualty figures and thus a more accurate view of this crisis falls fairly and squarely on the doorsteps of 1600, Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington and 10, Downing Street in London, two households that have experienced no excess deaths of children or adults as a result of the war.

I am indebted to Medialens, a British media watchdog group, for some of the material in this report. You can find a fuller discussion of the role of the U.S. and British media in suppressing the Lancet report at its website: and