When and how the did UK government decide to join the US-led invasion of Iraq?

“…that advice was to Ministers collectively… My memory is the same as Sir David Manning’s, as he explained to you yesterday, that there was no particular decision point before Crawford from which a new policy emerged… I’m not aware of any collective sort of Cabinet ministerial discussion.”
Peter Ricketts, former political director at the Foreign Office, at the Inquiry, talking about the March 2002 Cabinet Office Options Paper.

“I simply observe that Sir Christopher Meyer has argued that our policy did change in this period … and, when you look at the paper and you compare it with what he said, it would appear that the paper had been part of a process of shifting policy.”
Sir Roderick Lyne, in response to Ricketts

“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.

…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…”
Tony Blair at the Inquiry, explaining his decision, based on the Options Paper.

The question of when the UK government decided to take part in the invasion of Iraq, which it knew the US intended to pursue, is a vital one for the Inquiry. It is closely linked to the question of why Britain took part in the war Witnesses have said that the invasion was the culmination of a policy that evolved in the Spring of 2002, whereby the UK and US would use diplomacy to address the issue of supposed weapons of mass destruction, backed up by the threat of force. It is perhaps significant that the Inquiry’s paper on the scope of its report identifies a key issue in these terms: “the decision to pursue an ultimatum through the UN”.

But, in the passage quoted above, Tony Blair implicitly admitted this process was intended from the outset to lead to regime change. The Options Paper described the policy of using diplomacy and an ultimatum to address the WMD issue as one of “toughening containment”. Blair made clear that he rejected this approach.

It appears that Blair decided that Britain would take part in a US-led invasion as soon as the Bush administration decided that such an invasion would occur. Blair also told the Inquiry that as early as December 2002 he told George Bush that Britain would be “up for” regime change.

This duplicity appears to have kept the Cabinet out of the decision making process. A number of witnesses, including former cabinet secretaries, have told the Inquiry that Blair did not tell his Cabinet that he had committed the country to war. In particular, Richard (now Lord) Wilson told the Inquiry that the Cabinet had not seen the March 2002 Options Paper, which set out the policy of regime change.

Another closely related question is when the government began to act on any decision. This can be broken down into external action – including commitments to the Bush administration – and internal action, such as military planning. The latter type of action can be seen as more compatible than the former with a policy of diplomacy backed up by the threat of force because that policy would require contingency planning. But the strength of the commitments that Blair reportedly gave President Bush undermines any suggestion that support for military action was conditional.

When did Tony Blair commit the UK to taking part in the invasion?

For the whole of 2002, Blair claimed that no decision had been taken and in the run-up to the invasion he said that Saddam Hussein could avoid war by co-operating with the UN Weapons Inspectors.

The Inquiry has suggested that it has seen evidence that Blair committed Britain to taking part in regime change in private discussions with the Bush administration in December 2001 and Blair admitted at the Inquiry that he gave some kind of commitment at this time. But the strongest published documentary evidence that a decision was taken earlier than has been admitted comes in the Downing Street documents, which record that UK government officials told the Bush administration in March 2002 that Blair backed “regime change”. Indeed, the same documents suggest that the government deliberately chose to keep its intentions secret. However, other documents suggest that Blair gave Bush a conditional undertaking in April 2002 and that as late as July 2002, a definitive decision had not been taken. Read More

Was the Cabinet kept fully informed and consulted about the policy?

Given that the government’s position is that the Cabinet decided in March 2003 that Britain would take part in the invasion, evidence that a decision was taken outside Cabinet and subsequently acted upon is highly significant. The question then arises to what extent the Cabinet – or individual ministers – were told about the policy. The Butler Review, which commented on Blair’s style of “sofa government”, supports suggestions that the main decisions on Iraq were taken outside Cabinet. Read more

When did the government begin to act on this policy?

It has been alleged that some parts of government began to act from early 2002 as if taking part in the invasion was or would become government policy. There is evidence that Blair and others took a number of steps in preparation for the war in early 2002 but it needs to be established whether these steps were contingency planning for a scenario where force might be used.

There is some evidence, which the Inquiry has not examined, that preparations for the war included military action. In 2003, in a memorandum to the Foreign Affairs Committee, Sir John Walker said that in his opinion there had been a noticeable change in late 2002 in the pattern of targeting in relation to the No Fly Zones. This suggested a plan to “prepare the battlefield”. He told the committee that if his thesis was correct “the nation was committed to war in the late-summer, early-Autumn of 2002. Thereafter, the whole process of reason, other reason, yet other reason, humanitarian, – morality, regime change, terrorrism, finally, imminent WMD attack and topped by the UNSC Resolution farce, was merely covering fire.”

Conversely, it has been suggested that preparation for the war was hampered by a policy of not admitting explicitly that it was being planned. Read more