When did Bush decide to invade Iraq?

Fred Kaplan with a good piece on the Downing Street memo:

The key passage of the memo—which lays down the minutes of a July 23, 2002, British Cabinet meeting and was obtained and published by the Times of London just last month—is also the one that’s gained the greatest notoriety:

C reported on his recent talks in Washington. There was a perceptible shift in attitude. 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.

“C,” as is now well known, was the code name for Richard Dearlove, head of MI6, the British foreign-intelligence service. Most discussion of this passage has focused on its final sentence and the meaning of the phrase “fixed around.” But the most interesting part, for purposes of this discussion, is the second sentence: “There was a perceptible shift in attitude.” When Dearlove had been in Washington some time before, war was not a certainty; yet during this most recent visit, the whiff of gunpowder was distinctly in the air.

It would be useful to know the precise timing of Dearlove’s “recent talks in Washington”—and of his most recent visit before that. Still, if his perception (or, perhaps, his American source, who would have been then director of the CIA George Tenet) is to be trusted, the Bush administration seems to have firmly decided on war sometime in the late spring of 2002.

This inference is bolstered by an article that Nicholas Lemann wrote in the March 31, 2003, issue of The New Yorker, shortly after the war began. In it, he quotes Richard Haass—then the State Department’s director of policy planning—recalling a meeting with Condoleezza Rice, then Bush’s national security adviser, in the first week of July 2002:

Condi and I have regular meetings, once every month or so—she and I get together for thirty or forty-five minutes, just to review the bidding. And I raised this issue about were we really sure that we wanted to put Iraq front and center at this point, given the war on terrorism and other issues. And she said, essentially, that that decision’s been made, don’t waste your breath. And that was early July. … For me, it was that meeting with Condi that made me realize it was farther along than I had realized.