In the publicity sheet that St. Martin's Press has been sending out to spur interest in General Hugh Shelton's new memoir, Without Hesitation: The Odyssey of an American Warrior, the last highlight is a doozy: "A high-ranking cabinet member suggests intentionally flying an American airplane on a low pass over Baghdad so as to guarantee it will be shot down, thus creating a natural excuse to reltaliate and go to war."
Turns out the incident took place during the Clinton administration, and Shelton's response to the suggestion...well, let's just say it more than lives up to the title of the memoir.
Over at Salon's War Room, Justin Elliott has the specifics.
Shelton sets the scene at a "small, weekly White House breakfast" that served as regular "informal" meetings that "encouraged brainstorming of potential options on a variety of issues."
At one of my very first breakfasts, while Berger and Cohen were engaged in a sidebar discussion down at one end of the table and Tenet and Richardson were preoccupied in another, one of the Cabinet members present leaned over to me and said, "Hugh, I know I shouldn't even be asking you this, but what we really need in order to go in and take out Saddam is a precipitous event -- something that would make us look good in the eyes of the world. Could you have one of our U-2s fly low enough -- and slow enough -- so as to guarantee that Saddam could shoot it down?"
The hair on the back of my neck bristled, my teeth clenched, and my fists tightened. I was so mad I was about to explode. I looked across the table, thinking about the pilot in the U-2 and responded, "Of course we can ..." which prompted a big smile on the official's face.
"You can?" was the excited reply.
"Why, of course we can," I countered. "Just as soon as we get your ass qualified to fly it, I will have it flown just as low and slow as you want to go."
Readers aren't told explicitly who had this particular brainstorm, but Shelton gives you some clues. The breakfasts, he says, were attended by NSA Sandy Berger, Secretary of Defense Bill Cohen, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, CIA Director George Tenet, Vice President Chief of Staff Leon Firth, and U.N. Ambassador Bill Richardson. If you eliminate Berger, Cohen, Tenet, and Richardson and look at the Cabinet members that remain, you're sort of left where Elliott is: with Madeleine Albright.
Of course, as Jonathan Schwarz points out, this would hardly be the first or only time this sort of plan was discussed. Here's a New York Times article from 2006 on the build up to the 2003 Bush-led invasion of Iraq:
During a private two-hour meeting in the Oval Office on Jan. 31, 2003, [Bush] made clear to Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain that he was determined to invade Iraq without the second resolution, or even if international arms inspectors failed to find unconventional weapons, said a confidential memo about the meeting written by Mr. Blair's top foreign policy adviser...
"The U.S. was thinking of flying U2 reconnaissance aircraft with fighter cover over Iraq, painted in U.N. colours," the memo says, attributing the idea to Mr. Bush. "If Saddam fired on them, he would be in breach."