Blair solidly with Bush


On 2 February 2006, Channel 4 News carried extracts from a note describing a meeting between President Bush and Prime Minister Blair in the White House on 31 January 2003.  The next day’s Guardian [1] covered the same ground.  The information was supplied by Philippe Sands to publicise the new paperback edition of his book Lawless World.  Sands is a professor of international law at University College London and a barrister in Matrix chambers (with Cherie Blair).


The meeting between Bush and Blair took place at a time when UN inspectors were operating unimpeded in Iraq, but were turning up little by way of proscribed material.  As a result, Bush and Blair were at a bit of a loss for a presentable justification to terminate inspections in order to take military action.


In his book, Philippe Sands describes the contents of the letter as follows:


“First, the letter confirms that the decision to go to war had already been taken by President Bush.  This was irrespective of what Hans Blix found, or whether the UN Security Council did or did not adopt a further resolution.  The letter records President Bush telling Prime Minister Blair that the US would put its full weight behind efforts to get another resolution and would twist arms and threaten.  But the President states that if there was no resolution, military action would follow anyway.  The President told those present that the start of the campaign was now pencilled in for 10 March.  That was when the bombing would begin.  The military timetable meant that an early second resolution was needed.  And the President did not mince his words: the diplomatic strategy had to be arranged around the military planning.  What was the Prime Minister’s reaction to this?  He raised no objection.  On the contrary, he said that he was ‘solidly with the President and ready to do whatever it took to disarm Saddam’.  As to a second Security Council resolution, Blair wanted one only because it would make it much easier politically to deal with Saddam.” (p272-3)


Channel 4 and The Guardian treated as sensational this “revelation” that, in late January 2003, the Prime Minister was “solidly with the President” and committed to military action against Iraq, come what may.  And so does Philippe Sands in his book.


None of them “revealed” that Prime Minister had been “solidly with the President” and committed to military action against Iraq since March 2002 at the latest.  This is testified to by, for example, the leaked memos by David Manning [2] and Christopher Meyer [3] from March 2002, which have been in the public domain since September 2004.  It is confirmed by Christopher Meyer in DC Confidential, published in November 2005, where he writes of the period leading up the Bush/Blair meeting at Crawford in early April 2002:


“By this stage, Tony Blair had already taken the decision to support regime change, though he was discreet about saying so in public.” (p 241)


UN charade

As I have demonstrated in Blair’s Big Lie Confirmed [4], taking “the UN route” was simply a device to dress up the objective of regime change as disarmament.  In early 2002, Bush decided to overthrow Saddam Hussein by military means and Blair agreed that Britain would lend military support.  However, Blair judged that it would not be possible to gain domestic and international support for this enterprise unless it was dressed up as disarmament, and Bush was persuaded to go along with this charade in order to get British support – on the clear understanding that, come what may, the regime in Baghdad was going to be overthrown by US military action.


And so, in September 2002, the US/UK embarked on the charade of giving Iraq a final chance to disarm.  Plan A was to get the Security Council to demand that UN inspectors be admitted on terms that Saddam Hussein couldn't accept and to use his refusal as justification for military action.  Blair is quoted in the leaked minutes of a meeting on 23 July 2002 [5] as saying that such a refusal would “make a big difference” and in that context people would support regime change.  However, the original draft of Security Council resolution 1441 [6], proposed by the US/UK, was watered down under pressure from France and others, and Iraq admitted UN inspectors in November 2002.


Diplomatic rebuff

This was a major diplomatic rebuff for Bush and Blair.  They had hoped to be able to put Iraq in the dock for refusing to accede to Security Council demands to admit UN inspectors and to point to this refusal as proof positive that Iraq had something to hide by way of “weapons of mass destruction”.  In these circumstances, they would probably have been able to persuade the Security Council to authorise military action against Iraq explicitly, ostensibly to enforce Security Council resolutions, but as a by-product Saddam Hussein would have been overthrown.


But Plan A failed, and Bush and Blair were deprived of an immediate, clearcut, casus belli.  To make matters worse, Iraq allowed the UN inspectors to go anywhere they wanted and they found little by way of proscribed agents or weapons (apart from the Al Samoud missiles that were only marginally, if at all, beyond the 150km range permitted – and Iraq allowed these to be destroyed).


This was the context of the Bush/Blair meeting on 31 January 2003.  Philippe Sands’ account of it is consistent with this context.  That Bush was going to take military action come what may had been a given from the outset.  The only question at issue was the precise timing: troops had to be moved into position, but when they were in position they had to be used before the onset of summer heat.  Hence, “the diplomatic strategy had to be arranged around the military planning”.


That Blair did not object to any of this is not at all surprising, since he had signed up to it in March 2002.  But, with the failure of Plan A, he had a selling problem, not least in the Parliamentary Labour Party.  If at all possible, he wanted a “second” Security Council resolution to help with this selling problem, and Bush agreed to “twist arms and threaten” in order to get a “second” resolution.  But, to have any hope of doing so, there needed to be significant evidence of Iraqi failure to co-operate with UN inspection and/or of other breaches of resolution 1441.  Bush himself was not particularly interested in a “second” resolution, but any action or non-action by Iraq that could be construed as a breach of 1441 would have been useful to him to provide an excuse for terminating inspections in order to take military action. 


Air of desperation

According to Philippe Sands, at the 31 January meeting, there was discussion of “the possibility that the UN inspectors might not deliver the smoking gun that was being sought”, a possibility that was realised in practice.  Sands continues:


“Other options were considered.  President Bush told the British Prime Minister ‘the US was thinking of flying U2 reconnaissance aircraft with fighter cover over Iraq, painted in UN colours.  If Saddam fired on them, he would be in breach’.  It was also possible that a defector could be brought out who would give a public presentation about Saddam’s WMD …” (p273)


These suggestions have an air of desperation about them.  By now, Bush must have been wishing that he had listened to his neo-conservative colleagues in the administration, instead of Tony Blair and Colin Powell, and not gone anywhere near the UN, but simply invaded Iraq on the grounds that Saddam Hussein was a bad person.  Now, Saddam Hussein was co-operating with UN inspectors, and appearing to be quite a reasonable person, and the awful possibility was appearing over the horizon that the inspectors would declare Iraq disarmed with Saddam Hussein still in power.  Before this happened, the benign inspection process would have to be terminated by US military action – which would serve to increase world wide opposition to the enterprise.  From Bush’s point of view, taking “the UN route” had brought no gain whatsoever.


Blair, on the other hand, needed to take “the UN route” in order to sell military action domestically and internationally.  While it didn’t work out the way he wanted – Plan A failed, and he didn’t get a “second” resolution – he successfully conveyed the impression to enough of his backbenchers that he had made an effort to disarm Iraq by inspection to see him through, with Conservative support, in the Commons vote on 18 March 2003.


Blair’s (broken) promise

Achieving this was a bit of a triumph given that Blair promised not to take military action without a “second” Security Council resolution, or at least without a majority of the Security Council backing such a resolution.  He made this promise on several occasions, for example, in a BBC Newsnight interview with Jeremy Paxman on 6 February 2003 [7].  Here is an extract from this interview:


JP:  Will you give an undertaking to this audience, and indeed to the British people that before any military action you will seek another UN Resolution, specifically authorising the use of force?


TB:  We’ve said that that’s what we want to do.


JP:  But you haven’t given an explicit commitment that those are the only circumstances under which British forces will be used.


TB:  I haven’t but what I’ve said is this - those are the only circumstances in which we would agree to use force, except for one caveat that I’ve entered. And I’ll explain exactly why I’ve done this. If the inspectors do report that they can’t do their work properly because Iraq is not co-operating there’s no doubt that under the terms of the existing United Nations Resolution that that’s a breach of the Resolution. In those circumstances there should be a further Resolution. If, however, a country were to issue a veto because there has to be unanimity amongst the permanent members of the Security Council. If a country unreasonably in those circumstances put down a veto then I would consider action outside of that.


Blair managed to squirm out of this promise by lying that President Chirac stated in a TV interview [8] on 10 March 2003 that France would veto any second resolution, when he said no such thing.



David Morrison

23 February 2006

Labour & Trade Union Review