Cabinet Office briefing paper July 2002

On 21 July 2002, officials at the Cabinet Office Defence and Overseas Secretariat produced a briefing paper entitled “Iraq: conditions for military action” in advance of the meeting at Downing Street two days later.

The paper states: “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.”

Conditions for military action

Although it does not state this explicitly, the paper deals with two types of “conditions”. The first is the conditions that Tony Blair attached to the commitment that he made in April. The second is “the conditions in which we could legally support military action”, i.e. the political environment.

In both cases however, the significance of the paper is that it refers to action by the UK government to make military action possible. In the first case, it refers to action “to fulfil the conditions set out by the Prime Minister”; in the second case it refers to the need “to create the conditions in which we could legally support military action.” The purpose of the paper is to prepare the ground for British participation in the invasion of Iraq, if the US proceeds with its expressed intention to do this. It notes that “Although no political decisions have been taken, US military planners have drafted options for the US Government to undertake an invasion of Iraq.”

Possibly the most problematic of the conditions set by Blair was the exhaustion of “the options for action to eliminate Iraq’s WMD through the UN weapons inspectors”. It is noted here that the paper does not refer to “other” options, which would indicate that regime change was itself aimed at eliminating Iraq’s wmd. Nevertheless, it is possible to read the document as suggesting that if efforts to eliminate Iraq’s wmd were successful, Britain would not support regime change. However, other documents show that UK policy makers believed that Iraq would inevitably block, obstruct or expel UN weapons inspectors which would exhaust those options and provide a justification for the invasion. In fact, the briefing paper suggests that the sooner such a justification can be engineered, the better it will be. It comments: “It is just possible that an ultimatum could be cast in terms which Saddam would reject.” The paper failed to consider the possibility that Saddam might not have wmd, that he would not block, obstruct or expel the inspectors and that this condition would never be met.

The paper adds “the existence of a viable military plan” to the “conditions necessary for military action and UK participation”.

What is the Objective?

The paper states that “Our objective should be a stable and law-abiding Iraq, within present borders, co-operating with the international community, no longer posing a threat to its neighbours or to international security, and abiding by its international obligations on WMD. It seems unlikely that this could be achieved while the current Iraqi regime remains in power.” It adds that “US military planning unambiguously takes as its objective the removal of Saddam Hussein’s regime, followed by elimination if Iraqi WMD. It is however, by no means certain, in the view of UK officials, that one would necessarily follow from the other. ” This identifies a potential flaw in the plan – expressed in other documents – to use the elimination of Iraqi WMD as a justification for regime change.

But, like other papers, the briefing paper does set out how “the route under the UNSC resolutions on weapons inspectors” might be used as a pretext. It comments that while “regime change per se is not a proper basis for military action under international law” it “could result from action that is otherwise lawful.”

Making the case

Among the conditions that the paper sets out to fulfil is that “efforts had been made to construct a coalition/shape public opinion”. In order to do this, it invites ministers to “Agree to the establishment of an ad hoc group of officials under Cabinet Office Chairmanship to consider the development of an information campaign to be agreed with the US.”

The paper also states that “Time will be required to prepare public opinion in the UK that it is necessary to take military action against Saddam Hussein.” Again, this leaves no doubt that the government was already committed to military action; the purpose of the information campaign was to convince the public that this was necessary, not that it might be necessary.

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