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.