by John Bone
With Barack Obama on a 6-day tour of Europe, there are the usual newspaper editorials that mention the “special relationship” between the UK and the US. It is probably an opportune time to examine what the Inquiry has told us about this relationship and how much it contributed to the UK government’s decision to take part in the invasion.
The documents and transcripts released by the Inquiry now suggest that a decision was taken to support the US in December 2001. This was at a time when the intention of the US administration to launch an invasion of Iraq was only a rumour, which was met with incredulity outside the US: turning attention to Iraq after 9/11 made very little sense outside the US. So how did the UK government (or some people within it) come to a decision to support the US? Was it about the UK government’s strategy to the Middle East or its strategy to the US? The documents and the evidence tell us little about this, though they do strongly suggest that the September 2002 dossier was a post-hoc justification exercise rather than an impartial assessment of the evidence.
There are, however, a few clues in the documents recently released by the Inquiry. At the beginning of 2003 some ministers appears to have wondered whether the UK could duck out of participating in the invasion as it seemed possible that there would be no explicit UN mandate yet the USA would invade anyway. Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon appears to have asked his permanent secretary how the US administration would react if the UK government failed to go along with the US in the event that the US took military action against Iraq with a further UN resolution.
The Permanent Secretary, Kevin Tebbit, replied with an eight point memo, though the last five of these are redacted. This leaves us not much the wiser about why the UK government felt obliged to take part in the invasion before the inspections’ process had been exhausted. The first three points do provide a few glimpses of the thinking of the permanent secretary. He told Hoon that there would be significant damage to UK interests if the UK failed to go along with the US. The damage to UK interests and influence would be felt almost immediately and strongly in the foreign policy and security field, though other areas of the relationship would not be immune.
An interesting point made by Tebbit is that the damage to the UK’s interests would be greater than if the UK had behaved like countries such as one or more countries whose names are redacted. “The US has never had reason to expect much from them and they have much less at stake in the relationship.” This echoes a point in the documents released last month about oil companies’ concerns. In late 2002 British oil companies were worried that they wouldn’t get a share of the oil in Iraq after an invasion because Blair had pledged his support so early. They were afraid that other countries would be bribed to vote for the invasion in the UNSC, while it wouldn’t be necessary to pay for the UK’s vote in this way.
From the company perspective, the main purpose of the meetings was to ensure that they got their share (as they saw it) of Iraqi oilfields after the war. They were especially worried that the US government would naturally favour US companies, and might offer other fields to French, Russian or Chinese companies in exchange for their governments’ support in the UN Security Council. Tony Blair had already pledged British participation in the war, and so the British companies feared that with no bargaining power they would be left out.
So far the Inquiry has not told us much about how much the “special relationship” contributed to the UK government’s decision to take part in the Iraq invasion, but there are some signs that Blair’s early stance of “standing shoulder-to-shoulder” had a number of disadvantages.