by Brian Jones
Chris Ames’ account for Comment is Free of the first part of the Iraq Inquiry’s expert seminar on the evolution of international policy up to 2003 focuses mainly on the 12 months immediately before the invasion. The background articles provided by Toby Dodge and George Joffe take a broader view. I found both interesting and they contribute to my understanding of important aspects of the relationship between UK/US and Iraq and its evolution.
From the vantage point I had within Whitehall up to 2003, my interpretation of the evolution of British policy does not differ significantly from that of these academics. Indeed there are strong points of coincidence, especially with respect to the likely wider objectives of sanctions beyond resolving the weapons of mass destruction (wmd) problem. In fact, I go further on this and suggest that the handling of the wmd problem by the US was probably itself about what Washington saw as more important objectives. However, my view may be coloured by my involvement with the specific intelligence background and whether that means that any advantage offered by that viewing platform is offset by any bias arising from my peripheral involvement is something the reader will have to consider. Nonetheless I hope my thoughts add constructively to the picture.
Ames points out that wmd were not much discussed at the seminar, nor are they a major part of the articles but, not surprisingly, my version has them as a constant thread. The following is a discussion of the background as I see it up to 2001, the starting point according to the terms of reference of the Iraq inquiry. To project further into 2002 in this contribution would add volumes and tend to diminish what I believe to be very significant factors that are relevant to the preceding decade.
The Iraq war of 2003 belonged to the United States of America and President George W Bush. Britain would not have invaded Iraq alone or in any coalition that did not include the US. Any consideration must recognise this was the context of the British government’s decision to participate in the invasion of Iraq. Professor Clarke’s overheard statement, presumably by someone in government, that “if the Americans are making a strategic error we [the British government] have to make it with them, because of our positioning with the United States”, seems to support to this view. It is a fundamental factor that so easily slips out of sight in heated debates about other reasons why Britain went to war. I suspect that there were many “other reasons” of varying weight but that all of them were dwarfed by the need to keep on-side with the US. This seems to be what Clare Short, a member of the Cabinet at the time, thinks it was all about.
A central thrust of British foreign policy throughout the Cold War was to ensure the US remained fully engaged with the security of western Europe through the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). The Soviet Union had already annexed much of Eastern Europe and threatened to push its iron curtain further to the west. An enduring feature of Soviet foreign policy was to unravel the transatlantic alliance embodied in NATO which was designed to resist Russian expansion.
By the time Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government came to power in 1979 there had already been clear signs that America’s security and economic interests were shifting away from Europe towards Central and South America, and Asia. The reluctance of the Reagan administration to support Britain in the Falklands war or to consult London over the US military adventure in Grenada were salutary reminders of the changing attitude. In the 1960s and 70s, US Secretaries of State Robert McNamara and Henry Kissinger, possibly troubled by a lack of support from Europe over Vietnam, had warned that the US should not be expected to risk its existence in a war to defend Europe. Thatcher redoubled British efforts to maintain US engagement through a policy of remaining resolutely in-step with America on all matters of overlapping foreign policy interest.
The policy persists to this day (and must be a major factor with respect to Afghanistan), and has done so regardless of which parties were/are in power in Westminster and Washington. In the 1980s it included the recognition of Saddam Hussein as the lesser of two evils in his protracted war with Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iran, and the provision of important elements of support to Iraq until hostilities ceased in 1988. The US and UK governments apparently had accepted that Saddam needed unconventional means to hold back the numerically superior if less professional Iranian forces that threatened to overwhelm Iraq, and seem to have turn a blind eye to his acquisition of at least chemical weapons during this period.
When Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, Thatcher was in step with President George H W Bush in offering support when he decided to lead a military coalition of countries to eject Saddam. Military action was mandated by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). Although the Iron Lady had been deposed and John Major was prime minister by the time hostilities started, Britain played the main supporting role to the US in the military campaign of 1991.
The likely military significance of Iraq’s existing wmd and missiles had not been considered in any detail by either Britain or the US before the decision to go to war was taken in 1990. But they quickly became an important concern for those involved in prosecuting it. Soon chemical weapons and biological weapons (and the ballistic missiles that might deliver them over longer distances) were an unfamiliar and frightening issue for political and military leaders preparing for the action to come.
Key figures in the Washington hierarchy who found themselves exploring and trying to resolve the potential problems of Iraq’s wmd capability in 1990/91 were the then defense secretary Dick Cheney, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell, and two other senior Defense Department officials, Paul Wolfowitz and I Lewis Libby. National security adviser Brent Scowcroft led efforts to prepare for civil defence with the assistance of White House staffer Condoleeza Rice.
From January 1991, the coalition forces battered the military infrastructure of Iraq from the air, and there was inevitable collateral damage, before ground forces drove the invader from Kuwait. But the ground battle was halted at the Iraq border. Hostilities were suspended on condition Saddam submitted to stringent cease-fire requirements imposed by the UNSC.
Although Saddam had not used any of his wmd against the coalition, their elimination and the destruction of the related infrastructure was an important element of the terms of the cease-fire. A complication was that the exact status of the capabilities and programmes was not known. UK and US intelligence believed that, by 1991, Iraq possessed not only a mature chemical weapons capability, but also a maturing biological warfare programme that might have produced a few weapons, and intermediate range ballistic missiles. Further, Saddam wanted nuclear weapons and the status of the infrastructure that had been developed to support this quest had also to be determined, and what existed dismantled.
After the dust of war had settled it remained unclear whether Saddam would have resorted to wmd if coalition forces had headed on to Baghdad and his regime had been threatened. The possibility focused minds on the problems that could arise if wmd were in the arsenals of minor nations when conflict arose. It brought the subject of asymmetric warfare to the forefront of security planning and, despite its growing disenchantment with formal international arms control treaties, conventions and regimes, there appeared to be a great determination on the part of the US to demonstrate that wmd could be controlled, beginning with Iraq.
Those charged with accomplishing Security Council directives, especially the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) that was established specifically to deal with Iraq’s chemical and biological weapons and ballistic missiles with a range of over 150km (1) had an impossible task. Although a few of us in Whitehall argued this, a powerful majority appeared not to accept the point (2). Most coalition partners now diminished their already limited support, but Britain remained resolutely engaged with the US not only in the task of finding, destroying and then constraining Iraq’s wmd stockpiles and programmes, but also establishing and enforcing “no-fly” zones created to limit Saddam’s repressive activity against Shia and Kurdish communities.
It is not clear whether the British government understood US motives at this time. It has recently become increasingly clear that, through the 1990s, the US focus in Iraq was about much more than the elimination of its wmd capabilities and potential (3). It may even have been that from the outset Washington saw the wmd issue as a means of achieving regime change. (Of course, to openly represent it as such would have diminished international support). Alternatively, it could have been a device for keeping Saddam “in a box” and his regime under some degree of control, and indeed the two things were entirely compatible.
For either purpose the US would have had an interest in delaying the resolution of the wmd issue until Saddam had gone (4). Were these possibilities discussed between the UK and US governments? To most in UK, within and outside government, the emphasis appeared to be simply on eliminating Iraq’s wmd capabilities. In any case, although there were some breakthroughs, successive Iraqi “full, final and complete declarations” failed to satisfy the US and UK governments and the matter remained unresolved.
Al Qaeda, al Shifa and Desert Fox
In 1998, the new Labour government of Tony Blair was forced to make difficult decisions about Iraq and the UK/US relationship. President Bill Clinton, under some specific pressure from the Republican opposition to take greater advantage of America’s new authority as the worlds only superpower, and somewhat weakened by domestic issues, found himself taunted by an increasingly defiant Saddam.
Through the years since the 1991 conflict, Saddam must have come to realise that it was probably his own regime rather than his wmd ambitions that was in America’s sights. Now, the Iraqi leader may have sensed a weakness on the part of the US President and he demanded the exclusion of American “spies” from UNSCOM and IAEA inspection teams, forcing the withdrawal of all inspectors.
Meanwhile, on 7 August 1998, al Qaeda sponsored vehicle bomb attacks on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania killed over 200 people, including many Americans. A firm US response was inevitable. What happened over the next few months portended, on a smaller scale, what would happen in the wake of the al Qaeda attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 11 September 2001.
First, al Qaeda camps were attacked with cruise missiles in the “safe haven” it enjoyed in Afghanistan. Also, a tenuous link was “created” by Washington between Iraq, al Qaeda, Sudan, and chemical weapons, resulting in the destruction of the al Shifa pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum. This facility was said to be producing chemical weapons based on Iraqi recipes.
The decision to make missile strikes against al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan was founded on sound intelligence. The attack against al Shifa was not. The allegation concerning the production of the nerve agent VX in Sudan later collapsed and the mistake was eventually acknowledged by the US and full compensation paid. However, at the time, Tony Blair declared unconditional support for Clinton’s anti-terrorist raids, including the al Shifa blunder. There had been no independent British intelligence assessment to support the attack on the Sudanese plant.
Later in the year, action was taken directly against Iraq in Operation Desert Fox (5). In December, Blair ordered UK participation in a US air assault. Its ostensible aim was to eliminate Saddam’s wmd programmes. But British intelligence could not identify any facilities related unambiguously to an active wmd programme, and was unable to suggest targets of this sort with confidence. Targeting was directed by the US. Presumably, even at this early stage, Blair had made the decision that the UK would support any and all US action against Iraq. He encountered no significant opposition from parliament.
The Iraq Survey Group confirmed when it reported in 2004 , what the British government quietly conceded in 1999 (6) – that there was no active wmd programme in Iraq when Operation Desert Fox took place.
Between 1998 and 2001, Britain was engaged with the United States in trying to maintain sanctions against Iraq in the face of growing opposition, especially from France and Russia. Pressure to ease sanctions also derived from the increasing evidence of the humanitarian crisis that had developed for the vast majority of the Iraqi population. In its early months, the administration of George W Bush gave some attention through Colin Powell’s State Department to “smarten” the sanctions regime in such a way as to reinforce wmd related controls whilst easing back in areas which might bring improvements to the lot of the long suffering majority in Iraq. Then there was 9/11.
After 9/11, Tony Blair believed it was important to offer British support and military assistance when President George W Bush decided to destroy al Qaeda in Afghanistan and remove the Taliban government that had given it shelter. Blair was determined to prevent the US becoming isolated, and to try and counter any notion that Islam itself was the target, and he worked hard to rally support around the world. In order to justify this policy in Britain and to convince the global community, the government issued a dossier called “Responsibility for the terrorist atrocities in the United States, 11 September 2001”. It was not specifically endorsed by the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) but included a fair reflection of the intelligence background on al Qaeda’s desire to acquire wmd. It paved the way for British military action in Afghanistan and probably made an important contribution to the generally sympathetic international response to the US led operation.
By the end of the year the Taliban had lost its grip on power in Afghanistan, and Iraq moved into the focus of the Bush administration.
1 The existing International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), based in Vienna, which already had responsibility for the oversight of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and its related safeguards agreements, was required to deal with the nuclear weapons programme. Iraq had signed and ratified the NPT. Iraq was not a state party to the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention which, in any case had no standing oversight authority. The Chemical Weapons Convention and its oversight body, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), now based in the Hague, did not exist in 1991.
2 Our message on this was not a popular one because of the broader implication for arms control and the implicit suggestion that the Gulf war victory was less complete than the politicians wished it to appear.
3 Two US officials who served UNSCOM in the 1990s have separately suggested this. See Scott Ritter, Iraq Confidential (I B Taurus & Co Ltd, London and New York, 2005) pp 4-5, and Charles Duelfer, Hide and Seek (Public Affairs, New York, 2009) pp 86-87, p468. President Clinton eventually signed the Iraq Liberation Act on 31 October, 1998 giving tangible substance to an undeclared policy goal that had apparently existed since 1991.
4 Charles Duelfer, a US State Department official who led the Iraq Survey Groups investigation into Iraq’s WMD from February 2004 until its conclusion, thinks this was the case (see Duelfer at footnote 3, above, pp.86-7, p468). He believed WMD issues were “a surrogate for national policies between Washington and Baghdad” in the 1990s and again in 2002-3.
5 There are also hints that, as was to happen in 2002-3, efforts were made to condition public opinion to support military action against Baghdad in the period leading up to the military attacks in late 1998, through an MI6 led operation called “Mass Appeal. See “Review of Intelligence on Weapons of Mass Destruction”, Chairman The Rt Hon The Lord Butler of Brockwell, HC 898, The Stationery Office, London, 14 July 2004 , pp 120-1 and 156. See also See Scott Ritter, Iraq Confidential (I B Taurus & Co Ltd, London and New York, 2005) p 280.
6 See the official publication “Defending against the threat from Biological and Chemical Weapons”, Ministry of Defence 7/99, July 1999 pages 5-8.