FINANCIAL TIMES March 27, 2003

How long has war been in the cards?

Gen. Franks indicates preparation under way for a year

by Stephen Fidler

Did Tommy Franks, the chief of Central Command, let the cat out of the bag? There was some anxiety at the White House that, during his first press conference of the Iraq military campaign, Gen. Franks may have been a little too, well, frank.

THE CONTROVERSIAL QUESTION the general unwittingly addressed was this: When did George W. Bush decide to go to war? The more evidence there is that Mr. Bush decided to go to war early, the more ammunition for those who say his decision to go to the UN was little more than a charade.        The awkward suggestion that the decision was made early has already surfaced in some U.S. magazines.

Time magazine reports that the president poked his head into the office of Condoleezza Rice, his national security adviser, in March 2002 and told three senators sitting there: ”[Expletive deleted] Saddam. We're taking him out.”

Richard Haass, policy planning chief at the State Department, said he first realized in the first week of July that war was coming, according to the New Yorker. In a conversation with Ms. Rice about whether it was wise to put Iraq front and center of U.S. policy: "She said, essentially, that the decision's been made, don't waste your breath,” he was reported as saying.

Now Tommy Franks jumps in. Asked on Saturday whether there had been any surprises in the campaign to date, he said: "Actually, there have been no surprises in the way that you asked the question. One is surprised, I think, when one has not had a year to think through the possibilities.

"Much has been said and written about this business of [whether] one plan [is] good enough and another not, and so forth. And the fact of the matter is that for a period of about a year, a great deal of intense planning and a great deal of what-iffing by all of us has gone into this so that we prepare ourselves and prepare our subordinates in a way that we minimize the number of surprises. There will be surprises, but we have not yet seen them."

So, it looks like Gen. Franks and his colleagues were thinking seriously about an invasion last March. Of course, the military is always making plans, and the existence of a military plan does not mean a political decision has been made to go to war.

But the discomfiture at the White House suggests there may be more to it than that.

As time passes, the decision to have looked for a second United Nations Security Council resolution to back the use of force in Iraq looks worse and worse. U.S. officials have already made plain that Washington's decision to seek the second resolution was taken for one reason only: because Tony Blair said he needed it.

Hardliners in the Bush administration opposed the decision and chafed at it afterwards, arguing that it was not legally necessary. It now emerges that, in this respect at least, they had allies in an unexpected quarter: Paris. Not only that, France's ambassador to Washington, Jean-David Levitte, urged the U.S. not to go forward with the second resolution.

Weeks before it was tabled, I went to the State department and to the White House to say: ‘Don't do it,'” he told a crowded meeting organized in Washington by the Council on Foreign Relations. He gave two reasons: "You will split the council and you don't need it.”

Some things don't change. Watching U.S. television weather forecasters using maps of the Middle East to explain to viewers the meteorological causes of sandstorms brings to mind the observation of the journalist Ambrose Bierce: "War is God's way of teaching Americans geography.”