Did Tony Blair make a conditional commitment to join the US invasion?

The Downing Street documents provide clear evidence that Tony Blair gave the US administration a clear undertaking that the UK would take part in an invasion of Iraq, provided that certain conditions were met.

A letter from Foreign Office political director Peter Ricketts to Jack Straw in March 2002, appears to set out the government’s approach: “By sharing Bush’s broad objective” the Prime Minister can help shape how it is defined, and the approach to achieving it.”

But this and other documents suggest that the conditions were largely intended to create a political and military context in which the invasion could take place and have British support. The documents also provide evidence that the UK government itself took political and military action to ensure that the conditions would be met.

This suggests that Britain’s support for the invasion was not truly conditional, in that the government always intended to take part. Rather, it was presented as conditional, so that concessions could be achieved in return for support. Christopher Meyer, the former UK ambassador to Washington, has said that Blair’s preconditions did not mix easily with his public commitment to stand by the US however the cards fell.

The Inquiry will need to consider how successful the policy of setting conditions was, both in its own terms and more objectively.

Setting the conditions


The March 2002 Iraq options paper, which concludes that “the use of overriding force in a ground campaign is the only option that we can be confident will remove Saddam”, sets out the staged approach required to launch such a campaign. These include:

    Using the re-admission of UN weapons inspectors to secure “justification for military action”;
    careful military planning;
    coalition building;
    tackling other regional issues, such as the Israeli/Palestinian conflict;
    sensitising the public through a media campaign

The July 2007 briefing paper “Iraq; Conditions for military action” describes how Blair had set out very similar conditions the following month.

“When the Prime Minister discussed Iraq with President Bush at Crawford in April he said that the UK would support military action to bring about regime change, provided that certain conditions were met:

    efforts had been made to construct a coalition/shape public opinion,
    the Israel-Palestine Crisis was quiescent,
    and the options for action to eliminate Iraq’s WMD through the UN weapons inspectors had been exhausted.”

It is noted that the conditions did not include a viable plan for post-war reconstruction.

Meeting the conditions


The briefing paper then comments that: “little thought has been given to creating the political conditions for military action, or the aftermath and how to shape it.” It continued: “In order to fulfil the conditions set out by the Prime Minister for UK support for military action against Iraq, certain preparations need to be made, and other considerations taken into account.”

The additional consideration, was “a viable military plan”. In effect, this was presented as the primary consideration. The memo that recorded the “conclusions” of the meeting for which the briefing paper was prepared, on 23 July, supports this. It states: “We should work on the assumption that the UK would take part in any military action. But we needed a fuller picture of US planning before we could take any firm decisions.”

How successful was the policy of attaching conditions?


The conditions set out in the briefing paper can all be seen as necessary in ensuring that the invasion was both politically achievable and militarily successful, although two conditions arguably relate to issues of whether UK participation would be justified in terms of dealing with the issue of wmd or through wider benefits.

Making the case

The requirement that efforts should be made “to construct a coalition/shape public opinion” can be seen to have been met, in that such efforts were made. In both cases however, the efforts are likely to be seen as only partly successful.

Progressing the Middle East Peace Plan

The Inquiry will need to consider the extent to which the UK government used its offer of participation in the invasion to press the US to attempt to resolve the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. The briefing paper seems to confirm that the requirement “a quiescent Israel/Palestine” related to the concern that visible planning for military action would lead to an upsurge in violence, which would undermine attempts to create the political conditions for military action.

Reconstruction

The Inquiry will also need to consider whether the failure to make UK support conditional on the setting of a viable plan for post-war reconstruction led to the deteriorating situation after the takeover of the country.

Exhausting other options on wmd

The condition that “the options for action to eliminate Iraq’s WMD through the UN weapons inspectors had been exhausted” is at the heart of the controversy over UK participation in the war. In assessing the success of this condition, the Inquiry will need to consider evidence that the issue of wmd was being used to provide a justification for war. This includes a comment in the briefing paper that “an ultimatum could be cast in terms which Saddam would reject”.

The paper does not otherwise define what is meant by exhaustion of the options but suggests that it could also mean a refusal by Iraq to allow the inspectors to operate freely. The invasion took place while the inspectors were still attempting to establish whether Iraq had wmd. The US and UK governments claimed that the Iraqi regime had failed to comply with their obligations to co-operate with the inspectors. But to a large extent these claims of non-compliance were based on claims that Iraq was concealing wmd, which it did not have.

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