I sought regime change – Blair

by Chris Ames

Although, as I have said before, ill-informed commentators have said that nothing new came out of Tony Blair’s return to the Inquiry last month, he did inadvertently admit that from as early as March 2002 his policy was to seek regime change.

One of the tricky things with Blair’s statements is that when he is denying that he was surreptitiously seeking regime change, he uses one set of arguments, while when he is justifying regime change he says something different. In the first case he tries to conceal the duplicity of his approach by describing his policy of regime change as dealing with Saddam’s wmd.

But in his session last month, he did, as I observed here, admit that the March 2002 Options Paper, provided a binary choice between containment and regime change and that he “came down” in favour of the latter.

When challenged about his failure to show the Options Paper to the Cabinet, which had a major discussion about Iraq on 7 March 2002, he said this:

Well, the options paper really said two things. It said you can either go for containment. We can’t guarantee that that’s successful. He will probably continue to develop his programmes and be a threat, but nonetheless that is one option. The other option is regime change.

Putting aside for a moment, the fact that the Options Paper talked about “toughening containment”, which was effectively the policy that Blair publicly espoused, in this quote Blair gives a pretty accurate account of the paper and firmly identifies regime change as part of a binary choice.

Later in the same session, Blair returned to the subject of the Options Paper:

That options paper actually gives quite a good summary. I don’t suppose there is any problem in reading it. It says: “Tougher containment” — this is the sort of summary, if you like “would not reintegrate Iraq into the international community as it offers little prospect of removing Saddam. He will continue with his WMD programmes, destabilising the Arab and Islamic world and impoverishing its people, but there is to greater threat now that he will use WMD than there’s been in recent years so continuing containment is an option.”
So that was the two sides of the argument, and then which side you came down on really depended on whether you thought post-September 11th we had to be change makers or whether we could still be managers. Up to September 11th we had been managing this issue. After September 11th we decided we had to confront and change…

Blair could not have made it much clearer: he rejected containment, even a tougher version, in favour of “the other option” of regime change. To return to the way the Options Paper defined toughened containment – the policy Blair rejected – it said this:

P5 and Security Council unity would facilitate a specific demand that Iraq re-admit the UN inspectors. Our aim would be to tell Saddam to admit inspectors or face the risk of military action.
the return of UN weapons inspectors would allow greater scrutiny of Iraqi programmes and of Iraqi forces in general. If they found significant evidence of WMD, were expelled or, in face of an ultimatum, not re-admitted in the first place, then this could provide legal justification for large-scale military action

This is pretty well how Blair described his policy at the time and – for the most part – how he describes his policy today. And yet he clearly told the Inquiry last month that he rejected this policy. His approach of having his cake and eating it by simultaneously denying and justifying a policy of regime change has well and truly backfired.

And here is what Tom McKane, whose Cabinet Office section produced the Options Paper and was responsible for co-ordinating the paper, told the Inquiry last month:

MR TOM McKANE: Well, I would repeat what I have just said, that formally from my position in the Cabinet Office there wasn’t a change. The policy of containment wasn’t abandoned until the point when the government decided that it would make — that it would prepare for military intervention and —
SIR RODERIC LYNE: When did the government take that decision?
MR TOM McKANE: I think that too is a difficult question to answer in a precise way, because there was certainly right through to the point where I left the Cabinet Office — there were still a number of points that would have had to have been resolved before any decision would have been taken to —
SIR RODERIC LYNE: You left the Cabinet Office in?
MR TOM McKANE: The beginning of September 2002.

Different witnesses have given different accounts of whether or not the government was still pursuing a policy of containment in the run-up to the war but nearly all have fiercely denied that the policy was one of regime change. Last month Blair undercut them all.

7 comments to this article

  1. Stan Rosenthal

    on February 26, 2011 at 11:55 am -

    I really do’t understand your hang-up with the term “regime change”, Chris. If it means changing a regime simply because you don’t like what it’s doing to its own people, you may have a point in terms of the inadequate international laws on this matter (although I notice that even your fellow-traveller on Iraq, Carne Ross, was hinting at the need for this in today’s Guardian to stop what’s happening in Libya).

    However if it means changing a regime which is standing in the way of compliance with UN disarmament resolutions what’s the problem? After all changing a regime in these circumstances becomes the only logical alternative to achieving the UN objective after all else has failed.

    Unless you believe that the coalition forces should have confined their operation to capturing members of the regime, then having a good look around for those WMD unfettered by those members of the regime, and finally restoring the regime to power once the business has been done, thereby ensuring that regime change has not taken place.

  2. Anthony

    on February 26, 2011 at 1:53 pm -

    I don’t agree that he has undercut the policy as enunciated by the lower ranks. He is saying that the policy was one of disarming Iraq, and that it would be effected either by strengthened containment or by regime change. So regime change was a means to an end, not an end in itself. That is different from a policy of regime change for its own sake.

    Nevertheless, the inquiry has heard plenty of evidence that gives the lie to his words. e.g.,:

    a. the evidence from Carne Ross that the government wilfully ignored and refused to consider clear opportunities to strengthen the containment mechanisms – this demonstrates that Blair’s claim that the options of containment or regime change were fairly weighed up in the balance is false.

    b. by the time the invasion commenced, the inspections had established that there was no evidence that Iraq had any WMD anyway – so the notion that there had been a binary choice as a result of which it had been fairly decided that regime change was the only way to disarm Iraq, had clearly become spurious.

    Obviously Blair’s explanation is sophistry, and obviously the classic question about Richard Nixon – ‘Would you buy a used car off this man?’ – applies equally to Blair. However it is a case of his words being disproved by the facts, rather than his words being inconsistent with his stated policy.

    That is generally the case. He is extremely clever, and despite what you say he rarely if ever contradicts himself. However his problem is that he inhabits a parallel universe where the facts have to be changed so that they don’t contradict the rhetoric. What surprised me though was that he was nothing like so good at that as Jonathan Powell, who stated Blair’s case much more confidently and effectively.

  3. Stan Rosenthal

    on February 26, 2011 at 8:06 pm -

    Full marks for the first part of your comment, Anthony, but not for the second part.

    a the containment measures were proving to be counterproductive in view of the way Saddam was abusing the dispensations agreed for alleviating their effect on the Iraqi people. As a result, the calculation was that more people would have died from this sort of containment than the expected deaths resulting from a military invasion and this tilted the balance in favour of regime change.

    b the fact that inspections up to the invasion had shown no evidence of WMD did not mean that that there were no WMD. As I’ve pointed out before it was like trying to find a needle on a haystack while being hampered by those who had a vested interest in the needle not being found.

    So, contrary to what you say there WAS a binary choice between counterproductive containment and regime change to make sure the job was done properly.

    It takes a world class statesman to see the choices as they really are as opposed to what you would like them to be.

  4. brian bissenden

    on February 26, 2011 at 10:32 pm -

    It wasn’t quite like looking for a needle in a haystack in this case. If WMD was hidden then someone had to make a decision to hide the needle and would also know where it was.Plus all the civil servants,pen pushers, drivers,scientists,technicians ,warehouse workers,cleaners the list goes on and on , all the workers who’s work would of suddenly stopped and were unhappy in their new jobs. 100’s of people would know if not 1000’s .We were not looking for a Jerry Can but big drums , production plants ,the people who made the plant,the people who maintained it cleaned it the list goes on . Not ONE person could guide them even if they were being offered bribes to talk. I wonder why?

  5. chris lamb

    on March 1, 2011 at 10:04 pm -

    I am afraid that the Blairite WMD-regime change doctrine is an article of faith penned by the High Prophet Jack Straw and, since nobody can prevent Stan from worshipping at its shrine, perhaps it is best to let him cling onto this last vestige of his belief.

  6. John Bone

    on March 4, 2011 at 1:58 pm -

    As I see it, and as I suggested in the “Out of the Loop” contribution, the record of Goldsmith’s telephone conversation with Straw of 18th October 2002 has the crucial point. It says “The Foreign Secretary explained the political dimension. He was convinced that the strategy of standing shoulder to shoulder with the US was right politically.” Although politicians often said that the UK should stand shoulder to shoulder with the US, that was usually at the rhetorical level. The phone call on the other hand was between the Foreign Secretary and the Attorney General and they were talking about a UNSC resolution that was being debated at that time. It presumably was supposed to be a significant point that the AG should understand.

    The claim that the UK’s objectives were disarmament and the US’ objectives were regime change sits uncomfortably with standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the US. The only way this contradiction could be managed was by claiming that disarmament required regime change. Thus the sexing-up of dossiers and eventually the lies about “knowing that Iraq had WMD”; the claim that there were different interpretations of 1441 and that there had been a further material breach of UN resoutions. Mr Pattison’s session had a strange section in which he seemed to be saying that once 1441 was passed they assumed that the rest of the UNSC would sit back and let the US invade Iraq. He doesn’t explain why they made that assumption, despite the evidence of the public statements by other UNSC members. I am reminded of Straw telling a parliamentary committee in early 2003 that he had told France and Russia not to oppose the USA because the USA would be angry. He just didn’t seem to realise that France and Russia (and Angola and Chile and Mexico and others) don’t have the same hang-ups about making the Americans angry, and know the differnce between disarmament and regime-change.