by Chris Ames
Former Foreign Office director of communications (and therefore press secretary to Jack Straw) John Williams was at the heart of efforts to persuade parliament, Britain and the wider world that it was necessary to take military action against Saddam Hussien to tackle the issue of weapons of mass destruction. Williams has been keen to present his involvement – and indeed that of Straw – as a genuine attempt to address the WMD issue, by peaceful means if possible. But a media strategy that Williams wrote in September 2002 shows clearly that he was planning to justify military action with or without the so-called “UN Route”.
In a statement to the Inquiry, Williams set out what he called “the Straw Paradox”:
… My chief concern was with explaining to the media the efforts being made to draft, agree and secure what became Resolution 1441, and then the efforts to use its ‘final opportunity’ to achieve a peaceful outcome. The diplomatic effort did involve what the Foreign Secretary used to call ‘the Straw paradox’: that Saddam Hussein could be induced to comply with the UN only by a threat of military action that was credible and therefore would have to be used if there was no compliance.
21. I was responsible for helping the Foreign Secretary prepare his responses to the reports given to the UN by Hans Blix after the weapons inspectors were re-admitted to Iraq (which seemed to us evidence that the Straw paradox was applying sufficient pressure to make the UN process work). My recall of the Foreign Secretary’s press conferences and interviews is that, in citing a short list of weaponry unaccounted for, we relied on inspectors’ reports rather than the dossier, but this may be hindsight wisdom at work.
22. As the UN process approached failure, I was involved with Alastair Campbell, at David Manning’s request, in highlighting the importance of the statement by the President of France that he would veto a second resolution whatever the circumstances.
The fundamental problem with this version of events is that what Williams describes as the “failure” of the UN process happened at a time when Blix had not made a smoking gun WMD find and was reporting no serious obstruction from Iraq but the hope that he might “resolve the key remaining disarmament tasks” . The failure was the failure of the UK and US in these circumstances to secure a second UN resolution expressly authorising the use of force, whether or not that was French President Jacques Chirac’s fault. The UK/US strategy for regime change via the UN route depended on the inspections process achieving a justification for war.
Straw and Williams may have believed, based on intelligence reports, that the failure to find WMD reflected Iraqi concealment rather than the fact that they did not exist but in the same statement Williams describes the weakness of that intelligence, even after he drew out “the strongest points” in his own version of the dossier:
I felt the result was underwhelming, commenting to colleagues that there was nothing much new in it.
Clearly, Williams’ own assessment of the strength of the intelligence should have been that it was too weak to justify a war in the absence of Iraqi obstruction, a smoking gun WMD find or a UN resolution. He appears to realise this:
My recall of the Foreign Secretary’s press conferences and interviews is that, in citing a short list of weaponry unaccounted for, we relied on inspectors’ reports rather than the dossier, but this may be hindsight wisdom at work.
But here Williams floats the same defence that Straw used and which Blix shot down at the Inquiry. At the time and at the Inquiry, Straw misrepresented the inspectors’ “clusters document”, which Blix described as “the basis for our selection of key remaining disarmament issues”, as evidence of concealment. As I described here:
Blix found it “ironic” that the paper “came to be used actually to the meaninglessness of inspections rather than as a means which would have helped to continue inspections.”
This irony highlights the deception within the Straw paradox: inspections were not meant as an alterntive to war but as a means of justifying it, as the Iraq Options Paper shows.
Towards the end of his statement, Williams takes the fallacious line adopted by some of Tony Blair’s most determined defenders – that no-one would be foolish enough to make false claims about WMD while knowing that they did not exist:
I had never imagined for a moment that of all the outcomes of this intense process, the truth would be that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction. I believe the same is true of the Foreign Secretary and all those I worked closely with at that level, though as noted earlier I have since learned that some middle-ranking officials did have doubts. Some journalists are convinced we must have known. But no spokesman would knowingly subject a Foreign Secretary – and himself – to the humiliation of going before the media empty-handed, as we had to a few weeks after the invasion.
But his is a straw man approach – overstating the allegation in order to disprove it. The allegation against Blair, Straw and Williams is not that they claimed Iraq had WMD when they knew there were none but that they claimed certainty when they knew there was none. Williams has admitted that he knew Blair’s claim of certaintly was could not be justified.