SIR RODERIC LYNE: When you say that discussed with the President how to deal with it, what sort of ideas were you discussing with him? Were you discussing with him — was this beginnings of a discussion about regime change?
THE RT. HON. TONY BLAIR: Well, regime change was their policy, so regime change was always part of the discussion.
SIR RODERIC LYNE: Was it your policy?
THE RT. HON. TONY BLAIR: No, it wasn’t our policy to have regime change but it was our policy to deal with the WMD issues.
SIR RODERIC LYNE: So you were not proposing at this stage to President Bush that we should join in a policy of regime change? It was their policy, not our policy?
THE RT. HON. TONY BLAIR: All the way through — and I think this is what I said publicly at that time as well — if it became the only way of dealing with this issue then we were going to be up for that…
Discussion at the Inquiry 21 January 2011 regarding a telephone call on 3 December 2001
The question of exactly when Tony Blair committed the UK to taking part in the invasion of Iraq – ie by making a public or private promise – is one of the central issues for the Inquiry as it affects the analysis of the government’s actions in the run up to the war. 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.
Although the exchange at the top of the page suggests that Blair committed Britain to war in late 2001 or earlier, 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.
Given that Blair’s agreement appears to have been to take part in a US-led invasion, it is possible to argue that he nevertheless sought to avoid the war, if the Bush administration could be persuaded to drop its plans.
There is some evidence that Blair made clear to the Clinton administration in 1998 or earlier that Britain supported regime change in Iraq, which was official US policy (albeit not by military force) and that Operation Desert Fox, which was ostensibly aimed at Iraqi non compliance with UN weapons inspectors, was intended to destabilise the regime. If this is the case, references to Blair giving a commitment after the events of 11 September 2001 are in fact re-affirmations of that support in the knowledge that the Bush administration intended to put the policy more directly into effect.
After the September 11 attacks
Christopher Meyer, who was UK ambassador to Washington, has given two slightly different but not contradictory accounts of a conversation between Bush and Blair on 20 September 2001. Meyer has said that Bush said to Blair that after the invasion of Afghanistan, which had already been agreed, “we must come back to Iraq” and that Blair “said nothing to demur”.
The exchange quoted at the top of the page refers to a telephone call between Blair and Bush on 3 December 2001. The Inquiry has revealed that these followed a series of papers that David Manning, Blair’s chief foreign policy adviser, commissioned from an SIS officer identified as SIS4 – but believed to be Mark Allen – between 30 November and 3 December.
The Inquiry has published these papers. The first paper is headed: “What can be done about Iraq? If the US heads for direct action, have we ideas which could divert them to an alternative course?” The second paper is headed, “Iraq, Further thoughts”. Addressed to Manning, it begins:
At our meeting on 30 November, we discussed how we could combine an objective of regime change in Baghdad with the need to protect important regional interest which would be at grave risk, if a bombing campaign against Iraq were launched in the short term. The attachment sets out these risks and costs. The paragraphs below draw on our discussion of a possible way ahead.
The paper sets out the rationale for regime change and how it might be achieved, which is said to be set out in a policy statement: “we want regime change in Baghdad and we are ready to provide air support to coup makers”. A third paper sent on 3 December is headed “US ATTACKS ON IRAQ: THE RISKS AND COSTS”.
During Blair’s second appearance at the Inquiry, Roderick Lyne described the sequence of events that followed delivery of the papers:
So that advice came in and then on 3rd December you spoke to President Bush on the telephone. Then you sent him a paper which Sir David Manning delivered to Dr Condoleezza Rice during a visit to Washington on 5th December. The paper was dated 4th.
The Inquiry has not published the record of Blair’s conversation with Bush in which, according to Blair, he said that Britain would be “up for” regime change. Neither has it published the paper that Manning took to Washington. Nevertheless, it appears that these communications were part of a process of policy development that saw Blair offering British support for a policy of achieving regime change through air and other support to a coup. This was conceived as an alternative to immediate US military action.
The 6 March 2002 Iraq options paper is a key document that sets out both the rationale for regime change and a conclusion that it should be achieved by a direct invasion, rather than by supporting a coup. It purports to discuss the options of “toughening containment” and “regime change” but concludes that “the use of overriding force in a ground campaign is the only option that we can be confident will remove Saddam”. Regime change is thus confirmed as the objective of the policy. During his second appearance at the Inquiry, Blair confirmed that he supported this conclusion:
…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…
Two other key documents from March 2002 show that British officials told US administration officials that Blair would take part in US plans for “regime change in Iraq”. A memo from David Manning records that he told US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice that Blair would not budge in [his] support for regime change but [he] had to manage a press, a Parliament and a public opinion that was very different than anything in the States.” It should be noted that the language here suggests that Blair was re-affirming his support for regime change rather than offering it for the first time. This would appear to reflect a commitment made in December 2001, or earlier.
Manning’s memo has not been published by the Inquiry although it has been in the public domain for six years. At the Inquiry Manning gave an extensive account of his conversation with Rice, without mentioning that he gave a commitment to regime change. He was not asked about this omission.
A letter a few days later from Meyer records that he similarly told Paul Wolfowitz, the US deputy secretary of defense: “We backed regime change, but the plan had to be clever and failure was not an option”. At the Inquiry, Meyer said that this was on instructions from Number 10: “I think the attitude of Downing Street on this was this: it was a fact that there was a thing such as the Iraq Liberation Act. It was a fact that 9/11 had happened and it was a complete waste of time, therefore, in those circumstances, if we were going to be able to work with the Americans, to come to them and say any longer — and bang away about regime change and say, ‘We can’t support it’.”
The July 2002 briefing paper records that “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”.
In October 2010 it emerged that defence secretary Geoff Hoon discussed Iraq with US general Tommy Franks, who would later lead the invasion. Hoon did not mention this meeting at the Inquiry and it is not known what commitment he gave regarding British participation.
July – September 2002
The two key events in July 2002 are a meeting on 23 July (known as the Downing Street meeting) and a letter from Blair to Bush at the end of the month. Neither the record of the meeting nor the letter have been published by the Inquiry, although the meeting record has been leaked as one of the Downing Street documents and the contents of the letter have been reported in the media and discussed at the Inquiry. At least one account of the letter differs from the meeting record in that it reports that Blair gave Bush an unconditional promise to take part in a US invasion while the meeting record states that no “firm” decision was taken.
Two documents in the public domain show the preparation for the meeting. One is a minute to Blair from Jonathan Powell, his chief of staff, which has been published by the Inquiry. The other is a briefing paper for the meeting, another of the Downing Street documents.
Powell’s minute recommends that Blair should both phone Bush and write him “one of your notes” before Bush gets his military plans at the beginning of August. Powell says “I think we need a road map for getting rid of Saddam” and suggests that Blair should begin by telling Bush: “we will be there when the US takes the decision to act, but…”. Blair wrote at the top of the minute: “I agree with this entirely”.
Although, as stated above, the briefing paper records that Blair had given a conditional commitment to regime change in April 2002, it then sets out how the UK government should “fulfil” those conditions. It then comments that “a decision in principle may be needed soon on whether and in what form the UK takes part in military action.”
The Downing Street memo of 23 July records the main conclusion of the meeting on that day: “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.”
The notes of the meeting on 23 July state that Jack Straw planned to talk to US secretary of state Colin Powell “this week” to discuss to US military plans and discreetly work up “a plan for an ultimatum to Saddam to allow back in the UN weapons inspectors”, which would “also help with the legal justification for the use of force.” According to the Butler Review, Straw made the same point at a meeting with Colin Powell in the US on 20 August.
According to Andrew Rawnsley’s Book The End of the Partly, Blair’s note to Bush, which may have preceded or followed the meeting, began with the words: “You know, George, whatever you decide to do, I’m with you.” At the Inquiry Blair denied that he had used these words.
In August, Blair made a phone call to Bush, whose purpose according to the briefing paper was “to engage the US on the need to set military plans within a realistic political strategy”.
Over the weekend of 7 and 8 September 2002, Blair and his closest aides met President Bush at Bush’s Camp David retreat. It is not known what commitment Blair gave at this point but Bush subsequently committed his administration to seeking one or more resolutions from the United Nations.
October 2002 – January 2003
There is significant evidence that during the negotiation of what became United Nations Security Council Resolution 1441 (passed in November 2002) and subsequently, Blair told Bush that Britain would take part in an invasion without a further resolution. Between October 2002 and early February 2003 the advice from attorney general Lord Goldsmith was that the text of 1441 was not sufficient by itself to give legal cover for war.
On 17 October 2002, Foreign Office legal adviser Michael Wood wrote a memo to Edward Chaplin, head of the Middle East Department, about the “Prime Minister’s phone call with Bush, 14 October”. Wood warned that the current text of the UN resolution being negotiated would not provide legal authority for war. The copy of the memo published by the Inquiry includes a handwritten note from Chaplin to Straw’s office. Chaplin said that Wood’s concern was “well-founded” and indicated that a letter from No 10, “again suggests that US/UK military action might take place without a second SCR.”
According to a record published by the Inquiry, Goldsmith told foreign secretary Jack Straw in a telephone conversation on 18 October that he had received reports “that the Prime Minister had indicated to President Bush that he would join them in acting without a second Security Council decision if Iraq did not comply with the terms of a resolution in the terms of the latest US draft.”
It has been alleged that on 31 January 2003 President Bush said that the war would start in Mid-March and Blair replied that he was “solidly with the president”. The Inquiry asked Blair about this conversation during his second appearance, in January 2011. Roderick Lyne used the words quoted from press reports, telling Blair that he had “repeated your strong commitment, given publicly and privately, to do what it took to disarm Saddam.” Blair implicitly confirmed this, stating that he “was going to continue giving absolute and firm commitment until the point at which definitively I couldn’t, because had I raised any doubt at that time… the effect of that both on the Americans, on the coalition and most importantly on Saddam, would have been dramatic.”
Did Blair give a conditional undertaking to support the invasion?
Meyer, who has confirmed the authenticity of the Downing Street documents, has said that from his point of view, the road to war looked at the time anything but straight or the destination preordained. But the papers provide clear evidence that 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. Read more
When did the UK government begin to act on the policy of supporting the invasion?
Evidence that some parts of government began to act from early 2002 as if taking part in the invasion was government policy re-enforces suggestions that a decision had already been taken. This issue is complicated by the possibility that a decision was conditional but the evidence suggests that the government took political and military action to ensure that the conditions set would be met.
Planning for the war and post-war reconstruction
It has also been alleged that Tony Blair’s desire to keep the policy secret, even within government, created a situation where some parts of government were excluded from planning, to the detriment of the post-war stability of Iraq.