Did the government seek to use the UN process to avoid war or to provide cover for the invasion?

“That was … the whole purpose of trying to put them on the UN route, to explain to them you couldn’t just rush into Iraq unilaterally, you had to persuade people you have given Saddam a chance to comply and he had failed to do so.” Jonathan Powell, former chief of staff to Tony Blair, at the Inquiry

The issue of whether the government used the UN to avoid war or to justify it is closely connected to the question of whether it was primarily concerned with the issue of Iraq’s wmd or, for example, seeking regime change.

A number of leaked papers suggest that the government saw the UN primarily as a means of providing political and legal justification for the war. In particular, there is evidence that UN inspectors were set up to fail.

But it is arguable that having made a commitment to support regime change if that remained the US policy it sought to use the UN to remove the perceived need for such an outcome.

In his July 2012 account of the scope of its report Sir John Chilcot defined one of the issues as “the decision to seek an ulyimatum through the UN”. This implies that the Inquiry sees the government’s approach primarily as one of using an ultimatum, which would result achieve either in disarmament or regime change, rather than of seeking regime change, with the ultimatum as the means by which this would be achieved. If the Inquiry saw the government’s policy as being primarily one of regime change, as the evidence suggests, it would be logical to identify and focus primarily on this issue, with the means by which the objective was to be achieved as a secondary issue.

The Downing Street documents

The Downing Street documents make a number of references to the need to use the UN process to secure a political and legal justification for war.

March 2002

The March 2002 Cabinet Office options paper purports to compare the options of “toughening containment” of Iraq and regime change. The scenarios for each option include the readmission of UN inspectors, backed up by the threat of military force. In the former option, “the return of UN weapons inspectors would allow greater scrutiny of Iraqi programmes and of Iraqi forces in general. If they found significant evidence of WMD, were expelled or, in face of an ultimatum, not re-admitted in the first place, then this could provide legal justification for large-scale military action.” But the paper rejects this approach, in favour of regime change, under which a similar process is explicitly seen as providing a political and legal justification. In January 2011, Tony Blair told the Inquiry Blair told the Inquiry which option he chose:

… 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…

In a memo to Blair a few days after the options paper, David Manning, who was Blair’s chief foreign policy adviser, recorded that he had told the US that Blair would not budge in his support for regime change and that this gave Blair and opportunity to influence how President Bush implemented the policy. This included the Un [sic] dimension: “The issue of the weapons inspectors must be handled in a way that would persuade European and wider opinion that the US was conscious of the international framework, and the insistence of many countries on the need for a legal base.” There is no reference to the possibility that the UN inspectors might achieve effective scrutiny of Iraq’s wmd and this again suggests that they were seen as useful in providing the political context in which regime change would be possible.

The letter from Foreign Office policy director Peter Ricketts to Jack Straw on 22 March 2002 does provide some evidence that Ricketts at least saw potential for the UN inspectors to achieve sufficiently effective containment of Iraq’s supposed wmd programmes as to make war unnecessary. He suggested that it should be put to Bush that if Saddam Hussein did allow unfettered access “we can further hobble his WMD programmes”. This suggestion was not put forward by Straw but it raises the possibility that the Foreign Office was pursuing a different policy from Blair and the Cabinet Office.

July 2002

In July 2002 Jonathan Powell, Blair’s chief of staff, sent Blair a memo arguing that “we need a roadmap to getting rid of Saddam”. His strategy included “We need to set an ultimatum … we need to make clear that unless Saddam agrees to [UN] inspectors on our terms… we will act”.

The July 2002 briefing paper records that in April of that year Blair made UK participation in the invasion conditional on, amongst other things, the exhaustion of “the options for action to eliminate Iraq’s WMD through the UN weapons inspectors”. It is not clear whether he believed that these options could be effective or would inevitably fail. The paper does however provide the clearest evidence that calls for the return of the inspectors were not made in good faith. It observes that “It is just possible that an ultimatum could be cast in terms which Saddam would reject”.

The Downing Street memo, a record of a meeting on 23 July, records that Jack Straw believed that the US was determined to take military action, but “the case was thin”. He said: “We should work up a plan for an ultimatum to Saddam to allow back in the UN weapons inspectors. This would also help with the legal justification for the use of force.” It is not clear whether Straw’s intention was to use inspections to deal with Iraq’s wmd without the need for war or whether he believed, as others did, that the proposed return of inspectors would lead to war one way or another.

The September 2002 dossier

Another document, disclosed by the Hutton Inquiry, suggests that officials close to Blair saw Saddam’s announcement that he would allow the inspectors to return as a problem. On 17 September 2002 Alastair Campbell told John Scarlett, “In light of the last 24 hours, I think we should make more of the point about current concealment plans.” As soon as the return of the inspectors was confirmed, Campbell was seeking to undermine the public perception of their effectiveness.

Seeking a UN resolution

Following the Downing Street meeting, the UK government put pressure on the US to seek a new resolution on the issue of Iraq’s wmd from the UN Security Council. It achieved this, in spite of significant opposition from within the US administration. It is clear that in negotiating this resolution, the UK and US governments sought to obtain a form of words that would provide legal cover for military action but they initially differed on whether this outcome was achieved. The history of these negotiations provides some clues as to what the UK government was seeking.

Why did the US and UK argue for and proceed to war before the UN inspectors had established whether Iraq had wmd?

In November 2002, shortly after the passage of UNSCR 1441, UN inspectors returned to Iraq. They did not find significant evidence of wmd and were not seriously obstructed. In spite of this, the US and UK began to argue that Iraq was in breach of its obligations and sought a new resolution that would explicitly authorise military action. No such resolution was obtained but an invasion was nevertheless launched in March 2003. The fact that the US and UK launched a war that cut short the process of scrutinising Iraq’s wmd has led many people to suspect that the process of involving the UN was intended merely to provide cover for the invasion. Read more
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