A transcript of an eve-of-war conversation between President George Bush and former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar has revealed a previously undisclosed initiative to avert war in Iraq by spiriting Saddam Hussein out of the country.
"Yes, it's possible," Mr Bush told the Spanish leader. "The Egyptians are talking to Saddam Hussein ... He seems to have indicated he would be open to exile if they would let him take one billion dollars and all the information he wants on weapons of mass destruction."
But Mr Bush seems to shrug off the idea, saying "it's also possible he could be assassinated", and he makes made clear that the US would in any case give "no guarantee" for Hussein. "He's a thief, a terrorist and a war criminal. Compared to Saddam, Milosevic would be a Mother Teresa."
The conversation, recorded by Spain's ambassador to the US, Javier Ruperez, and published this week in El Pais, offers a unique insight into Mr Bush's brusque interaction with one of the few foreign leaders he trusted. Here was a leader already on the march towards war, expressing impatience and anger at those that disagreed with him.
Mr Bush does admit that averting war would be "the best solution for us" and "would also save us $50bn," greatly underestimating the cost to the US treasury of nearly five years of warfare. But he also talks of how he planned to exact revenge on countries, that did not back the US in its drive to war.
"We have to get rid of Saddam. There are two weeks left. In two weeks we'll be ready militarily," Mr Bush told Mr Aznar.
It was February 2003 at Mr Bush's Crawford Texas ranch, less than a month before the invasion. Almost 150,000 US troops and their British allies were sitting in the Kuwaiti desert. The troops were well within range of any weapons of mass destruction, military analysts have pointed out.
US administration officials had already prepared public opinion for war by raising fears of Saddam Hussein's nuclear programme and his ability to create "mushroom clouds." But the transcript reveals the two leaders were more concerned about getting a fig leaf of international approval for the war, than any imminent threat from Saddam.
The transcript revolves around Washington's frustrations at failing to get UN Security Council approval for war – the now-famous second resolution.
At the time, both Tony Blair and President Bush were officially open to a diplomatic resolution of the Iraq crisis – including a negotiated exile of Saddam - but the Spanish Ambassador's notes reveal peace was never really an option.
With public opposition to the war in Europe in full swing, Washington's two strongest allies, Mr Aznar and Tony Blair were under intense anti-war pressure.
President Bush needed to appear to be serious about diplomacy to "help us with our public opinion," pleaded Mr Aznar. The hope was that by being seen to looking for alternatives to war, the growing anger against US policy and Europe would be assuaged.
"I'm not asking for infinite patience," Mr Aznar said, but "simply that you do what's possible to get everyone to agree".
Pointing to the internal rows within the White House, where Vice President Dick Cheney was leading the drive to war, Mr Bush said he had gone to the United Nations "despite differences in my own administration" adding that it would be "great" if the proposed second resolution authorising war was successful.
"The only thing that worries me is your optimism," said Mr Aznar who is now a visiting scholar at Georgetown University. "I'm optimistic because I believe I'm right," the President replied. "I'm at peace with myself."
Mr Bush also chastised Europeans for being insensitive to "the suffering that Saddam Hussein has inflicted on the Iraqis" adding rather oddly: "Maybe it's because he's dark-skinned, far away and Muslim – a lot of Europeans think he's okay."
He then attacked Jacques Chirac, who had publicly challenged the US drive to war, saying the Frenchman "sees himself as Mr Arab."
It was at a time when the US right was trying to orchestrate a boycott of French wines and other goods. Restaurants across the US began using the name Freedom Fries instead of French Fries.
In one of the most chilling insights into the hardball politics Mr Bush was playing in order to get his way, he warned that countries which opposed him would pay a price, mentioning the Free Trade Agreement with Chile that is waiting for Senate confirmation and Angola's grants from the Millennium Account.Reuse content