Blair and regime change

by Brian Jones

From declassified documents released in May, it has become clear that, in early 2002, Tony Blair’s overriding wish was to use Iraq as the next step in the application of the political philosophy of “liberal intervention” to which he had become wedded in his first term of office. This was made plain in a minute from Blair to Jonathan Powell, his chief of staff, and Sir David Manning, his foreign policy adviser, in March 2002, shortly before Blair’s visit to Crawford. The Crawford summit, for which Blair appears to have been thoroughly and accurately briefed, is thought by many to have been the meeting at which Blair pledged his determination to provide British military support for an invasion of Iraq.

In the minute to his closest confidants, the prime minister does not cite any need to tackle the “threat” of Saddam’s putative WMD stockpiles or to support US action for wider political or security reasons. The former is not surprising because he had been repeatedly advised that intelligence on Iraq’s WMD would not justify the military action he seemed to anticipate. He also appears to acknowledge that Iraq “hasn’t any direct bearing on [UK] national interest”.

In a speech in Chicago in April 1999, at a time when he believed he needed to persuade a reluctant President Clinton to take more direct military action in the Balkans, Blair had argued for a “political philosophy that does care about other nations”. It advocated that, in a post cold war environment free of threats to national security, the west could afford to do this. For example, where appropriate they could pursue military action to achieve regime change in order to free oppressed people from unscrupulous dictators, eliminate regional dangers and restore stability.

Even in his March 2002 minute to his closest aides Blair feels the need to rehearse the case for “liberal intervention” in Iraq by reference to his successes in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Sierra Leone and appears to suggest it was right to be “gung-ho on Saddam”. By defining things in this way he tacitly acknowledges that he did not consider as particularly serious, any current or possible future threat from Iraq and its WMD, or the consequence of an increased threat from terrorists such as al Qaida that might arise in the future or directly as a consequence of any such action. Indeed he said his greatest fear was about oil prices because: “Higher petrol prices really might put the public off.”

None of this should surprise us since Blair has latterly made no secret of the fact that he was always much more than a compliant supporter of George Bush in pursuit of the policy on Iraq. It puts a little more flesh on the bones of the implication inherent in his admission to Fern Britton in 2009 that if he had known before the Iraq war that Saddam had no WMD he would have found another way to persuade people the invasion was appropriate.

All this is very strong, if not conclusive, evidence that the WMD “threat” was deliberately exaggerated as immediate (or current) to boost public, political and international support for military action because neither humanitarian considerations nor a potential future WMD threat from Iraq or terrorists would have been enough.

Blair’s belief that Britain should rush to the rescue of the abused and downtrodden whenever the opportunity arose would certainly not have cut much ice with the public at large or even the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP). This is clearly illustrated by the briefing paper that had been written for the PLP on 5 March which Jack Straw suggested would be “useful background” for Ministers attending Cabinet on 7 March. On 6 March 2002, at the Foreign Secretary’s request, his private secretary, Mark Sedwill sent a copy of “Iraq briefing for the Parliamentary Labour Party” dated 5 March 2002 to Matthew Rycroft in the Prime Minister’s Office. The putative threat from Iraq’s WMD and its repeated violation of its obligations under UN Security Council resolutions dominated the piece. A short discussion of Human Rights violations was relegated to the lower orders of the paper, did not feature in the list of its “Key Points” and did not mention the policy of liberal intervention. That Blair fed this promotional pamphlet to Cabinet rather than the more balanced and revealing advice contained in the official Iraq Options paper illustrates that he thought many of his senior colleagues would be critical of his real motives, and that he was careless of important constitutional procedures.

A minute from Powell to Blair, also copied to Manning, in the summer shortly before the Prime Minister’s secret Downing Street meeting on Iraq suggested a phone call and “one of your notes” to “GWB” [President Bush] after the meeting, “… before he gets his military plan on 4 August”. Powell advised that the PM stress to the President the need for “a road map to getting rid of Saddam” and listed a number of elements it should contain. They included the establishment of a legal base that “needs to be based on WMD rather than terrorism or regime change” and the need to “make the case” involving “a plan and timetable for releasing the papers we [the UK] have produced on human rights abuses, WMD etc” and the need to “have the sort of Rolls Royce information campaign we had at the end of the Afghanistan before we start Iraq”. The “papers” referred to are probably early drafts of what would become the September 2002 dossier on Iraq’s WMD. The prime minister added a handwritten note saying he entirely agreed with what Powell had written.

Blair wrote to Bush after his secret meeting on 23 July but not before Manning and Powell cautioned him about a draft of what he intended to send. According to Manning’s secret evidence, the opening sentence appears to have directly promised support for regime change. The reservations of the advisers were ignored and the declassification of this note has become a matter of open dispute between the Inquiry, the Cabinet Secretary and Mr Blair (See the exchange of correspondence between Chilcot and Sir Gus O’Donnell dated 10 and 22 December 2010 and 6 and 11 January 2011). Even if O’Donnell’s ban cannot be overcome, the Inquiry may choose to make it clear that Blair made a commitment in writing to support regime change in late July 2002.

It is evident that No 10 was less than completely frank about its motives before the Iraq war, and has since been less than completely frank about them. Whether or not those responsible for the intelligence that reached the Prime Minister were told WMD was the excuse rather than the main driver for future action is not clear, but this much would have been suspected by those who could compare the pre-September political rhetoric with the reality of standing JIC assessments. In May 2002 the responsible Assessment Staff deputy told me No 10 would not like the fact that the WMD intelligence on Iraq was not hardening up. An interesting recent observation has come from beyond the Iraq Inquiry and Freedom of Information disclosures. It appears in the recent book “Securing the State” by Sir David Omand, the man who was effectively the most senior intelligence official in 2002/3. Commenting on Blair’s admission to Fern Britton mentioned above, he seems to suggest he believed Britain would go to war even without the justifying argument of the existence of significant WMD. Such a belief may have made senior officials less careful than they might otherwise have been about the intelligence assessments that went forward, or less inclined to try to rein back the tone of Blair’s Foreword to the dossier. But this is no excuse for the JIC, or at least some of its most influential members, deliberately short-circuiting a key element of the intelligence process, and deceiving the rest of the intelligence community.

5 comments to this article

  1. chris lamb

    on July 30, 2011 at 8:32 am -

    I am entirely convinced that you are right, Brian, about Blair’s primary motive for the invasion as a rewriting not of liberalism, I would suggest, but of the Catholic doctrine of “just war”. I don’t think that “liberal interventionism” is very helpful because the premise of intervention, or invasion, in this case was a flouting of the well founded liberal tenet of respect for national territorial integrity and political sovereignty or self-determination- the Westphalian principle, in D Miliband’s words. Ironically, protection of this principle was worded into R1441.

    Blair’s essentially faith-based rewriting of the “just war” doctrine- as evidenced in his Chicago speech 1998- to incorporate paternalistic intervention in other nations’ affairs to oust regimes perceived as represseive (now that the Cold War checks and balances have been removed) is incredibly simple minded and devoid of the breadth, depth and nuanced thinking of original “just war” thinking in its lines through St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas.

    Original “just war” doctrine- (some of it having made its way into the existing corpus of international law)- acknowledged the necessity of resolving an international dispute through genuinely exhausting all peaceful avenues before reference to military force; resolved that the outcome of an action should not produce a greater catastrophe or evil than would be the case of not taking the action at all and innovated thinking on proportionality of actions. All of these were jettisoned in the case of the Iraq invasion.

    Blair’s faith-based rewriting of the “just war” (if we accept that as his primary motivation) was entirely at odds with the secular texts of treaty law contained in the UN Charter. This meant that the drafting of R1441 (as distinct from later negotiation) was not made in good faith.

    This is evident in various ways. For example, 1441 charged Member States to fully co-operate with the UN Weapons Inspectors in the discharge of its mandate and to submit all intelligence related to prohibited programmes to the inspectors for verification (OP10) but, in its draft, made this only a request. Therefore, the conception of 1441 appeared to permit Member State governments using their intelligence services as competing centres of authority to the UN Weapons Inspectors in order to mount later unilateral actions.

    Although this was checked snd balanced during the resolution’s negotiation phase by the triad of OPs 4, 11 and 12, which made it mandatory for any allegation of Iraqi non-compliance to be referred by reports from the heads of the weapons inspectorate to the Security Council for assessment, it was wholly ignored by the US and UK governments. Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, hubristically produced his own document on Iraq’s non-compliance which, in the context of the fetter placed on further decision making by the Security Council, formed a basis of the US/UK bilateral invasion.

    On this last point, the drafting of 1441 to remove explicit decision making over military force from the Security Council in OP12- turning it into a mere cypher in Goldsmith’s words (7 March legal advice)- overtly breached Articles 27 and 28 of the UN Charter which made it mandatory for all Security Council decisions to be majority decisions (9 votes “affirmative) and prohibiting any impedence to the continuous functioning of the Council.

  2. Brian Jones

    on August 2, 2011 at 4:01 pm -

    Thanks, Chris, for a fascinating comment that touches on an issue that has troubled many for a long time – that is the extent to which Blair’s undeclared religious beliefs drove the policy on Iraq and other things. I believe the general assumption has been that Blair’s Chicago speech was based on an idea by Sir Lawrence Freedman(solicited by Jonathan Powell) which he draws to Sir John Chilcot’s attention in a letter on 18 January 2010 together with a draft(see Iraq Inquiry News of that date)which does not appear to mention “just war” and has been discussed at public sessions of the Inquiry. My recollection is that Freedman has said that several of the tests or conditions he suggested before intervention Should be considered (at least three of the five by my count) were not met in the case of Iraq.

    To what extent do you think Freedman’s ideas and the Catholic doctrine of “just war” coincide, and are you suggesting Blair recognised similarities and applied them, or some fudged ideas related to them, to the rest of the his wars?

    I seem to recall that Alastair Campbell dissuaded Blair from making any overt declarations about his religious faith for fear of how the electorate might react, and that Blair has said something more recently about people would have thought him bonkers if he had said anything about his beliefs. Would “people” have been right? And did they have a right to know about them? Has anything on this been discussed at the Inquiry (as far as we know)?

    I felt that in delaying his conversion to the catholic faith until he left office Blair was showing he was prepared to allow what he and his advisers considered to be political pragmatism to take precedence over what I thought we the electorate had a right to know not least because he so often in office referred to his belief that he was answerable to his maker for the decisions he took.

    If you are rigt, your suggestion about his main driver to war moves the significance of this factor to a higher level. Should prime ministers or perhaps all candidates for public election be required to declare their religious beliefs?

  3. chris lamb

    on August 3, 2011 at 8:12 pm -

    My understanding is that Freedman’s contribution to Blair’s 1998 Chicago speech appertains mostly to Kosovo. However, I think an unfortunate precedent was set here with the advocacy of a values-ends strategy to push the UN Security Council, which did not have a consensus for this, toward military force for the avowed purpose of “humanitarian intervention” as perceived by a select number of Member States.

    It remains questionable whether the Kosovo intervention was lawful in terms of the UN Charter. However, the action was taken principally by a NATO coalition led by the UK and US rather than the UN as far as I understand it.

    A similar “values-ends” model was pursued in Iraq but proved a disaster. As with Kosovo, the values for Blair which determined from the outset the intended ends of the action were those of a perceived and necessary humanitarian intervention rather than WMD (which degenerated into an unconvincing and fabricated pretext).

    The “values-ends” model derives from the Just War tradition, where the determination of “just cause” for military force must be based on the values of the protagonists initiating the action.

    In reading recently a study of St Thomas Aquinas (an early exponent of Just War doctrine), a rather disturbing mind set of “values-ends” thinking emerges.

    “Human acts are those that we see ourselves as having a reason for performing, our reason being the value that we attach to something which is therefore the end in relation to our act” (A Broadie; Aquinas, The Philosphers OUP 1999).

    For Aquinas, it seems that only the architect or initiator of a plan of action understands the true meaning of its intended ends. These are defined and driven by the values which are unique to the architect. As those who are external observers of the action are unable to grasp the truth involved, by implication they must deferentially accept it.

    In Aquinas’ view. this explains why God’s purpose as the architect of Creation and natural life is beyond the grasp of mere mortals, who are only external observers of it. Deferential acceptance of this purpose is the best route to happiness.

    It can be seen that this “values-ends” argument of Aquinas could be used by medieval rulers when undertaking wars (considered “just” in their own interests) to exclude any wider need to justify their actions. In the end, they would be answerable solely to God for their action and the values underlying it.

    Does this sound familiar at all with respect to Blair?

    This is the best I can do, Brian. I am not an expert in theological thinking about war.

  4. chris lamb

    on August 4, 2011 at 5:15 am -

    There is a striking analogy from Broadie’s study of Aquinas and his values-ends model for a plan of action which hints at what went wrong in the UK planning for the military invasion of Iraq and the relationship between Blair’s intent and intelligence as the building blocks to realize this intent.

    Broadie uses the example of an architect, who determines the plan of a house according to the values he has in mind for its design and construction.

    ‘It is primarily the idea in the mind of the architect that is true and the house built according to his plan is said to be true only derivatively. If the house constructed by the builder does not correspond to the architect’s plan then the builder has made a mistake- the house is not true to the architect’s plan. It is not the plan that does not fit the house but the house that does not fit the plan. On the other hand if the passer by does not form an accurate idea of the house then it is his idea that does not fit the house- it is not true to the house’.

    If we adopt this analogy for Iraq, clearly Blair, as the architect, had a plan in mind. This depended upon intelligence as the builder for the materials which would translate this plan into a reality. But, the materials the builders were working with did not fit the plan (because the evidence would not support the plan’s assumptions). Because the plan contained the essential truth, the architect blamed the builders- or intelligence. “It is not the plan that does not fit the house but the house that does not fit the plan”. What remains sacrosanct in all this is the essential truth of the plan- the end must be determined by the values which defines and drives it- regardless of weaknesses in its materials and construction or the ideas held about it by onlookers.

    The real values-ends which determined Blair’s intervention in Iraq were not the disarming of Iraq’s WMD but regime change in order to achieve what Blair perceived as a humanitarian outcome- the removal of a repressive regime from Iraq. The building materials of intelligence evidence were ill fitted to do this.

    On Sir Lawrence Freedman, his intervention over Kosovo displayed a deep hostility to the United Nations which he considered incapable of decisive action to achieve the “humanitarian” goals he espoused. The key to what he proposed was the trumping of the UN by a rival “coalition of the willing” to deliver these “humanitarian” goals and gain sufficient international support in the process to sanction their actions and avoid penalties from potential breaches of the UN Charter. This happened with the UK/US coalition built around NATO.

    The UN Charter was breached over Kosovo. One example was the failure to reach a negotiated settlement over Serbia’s historical and cultural claims to at least some of Kosovo’s territory which well predated the Milosevic regime.

    This set a precedent for Iraq. The attempt to build a countervailing “coalition of the willing” which, in international support, would trump the UN again fell resoundingly flat. The UN’s “coalition of the unwilling” to use military force retained the majority position.

    It might be argued that if Freedman did not advise the original precedent with Kosovo the attempt to imitate it in Iraq may not have happened.

  5. Brian Jones

    on August 4, 2011 at 8:42 am -

    Thank you again Chris. Whilst the Freedman suggestions and the Chicago speech had Kosovo as the “example” there can be no doubt from Freedman’s suggestions memo and Blair’s memo mentioned in the post, both were considering the broader context also.

    I am not sure any of us (electors) would commission work from an architect (prime minister) who did not show us his plans (prospectus) and if he changed them dramatically
    without telling us we would probably sack him and claim compensation if the house fell down. Of course, dictators do not have to worry about the niceties of democracy. Neither obviously do democratically elected heads of state with huge majorities. (Remember Francis Pym being sacked from Thatcher’s second government because he said the size of her majority worried him).

    As a metallurgist/materials scientist I spent a good part of my career advising designers on the choice of structural materials or conducting critical experiments on them to establish if they were fit for purpose. Sometimes unsuitable materials were selected without consultation and the result was often catastrophic failure. I guess in the analogy for Iraq there was no alternative material available that would do the trick and I suppose it was hoped that it would be strong enough to hold the house up.

    We are still left with with questions about the main driver (why build he house?). Perhaps it was all a little simpler than we think. I remember more than one person who briefed or spoke to Blair about this suggesting that in the end the PM sought agreement with his view, “But he [Saddam] is evil, isn’t he?”