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The New Forthcoming Downing Street Minutes
The war's full story?
By Robert Fox, Guardian
The order to disclose cabinet documents from March 2003 on the legal argument for war in Iraq marks a milestone - but not a huge change. For that has already happened. Usually it would take up to 30 years, or more if they involved state security, for such papers to emerge and be placed in the National Archives.
Now two sets of papers are to be disclosed within 28 days concerning discussions about the case for war. We know that the Attorney General Lord Goldsmith had indicated early in March 2003 that the legal justification for Britain attacking Saddam Hussein was equivocal, and far from clear-cut. Then in or around March 16 2003 we know he changed his mind and he gave a short summary of the legal argument for joining the American offensive.
The new disclosures should explain why he changed his mind, and more to the point who persuaded him to. Since then he said his view was changed concerning two crucial UN security council resolutions, numbers 678 of the late autumn of 1990 and 687 of March 1991. This does not represent an open and shut foundation for a casus belli, as such eminent authorities as Professor Adam Roberts of Balliol College Oxford have explained (pdf).
The UN doesn't allow for the notion of continuing authority. In other words an individual government like the Blair administration in London in 2003 cannot just latch onto any old UN resolution it pleases, and use it as a justification for the use of force. Resolution 678 was the UN mandate for using "all possible means" to eject Saddam Hussein's forces from Kuwait, which he had seized in an illegal act of aggression the previous August. Presumably, this was discharged when the Iraqi forces were thrown back from Kuwait in the late February of 1991.
Resolution 687 was the UN instrument for Saddam to rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction, chemical, biological as well as nuclear. It was initialled by senior Iraqi military commanders at a ceremony at Safwan, near the Kuwait border. The mistake was that the American-led coalition did not force Saddam to come to Safwan personally to sign - for that would have given the deal the full strength of an international treaty.
However, a good deal of disarmament did take place - particularly of materials for chemical weaponry. We now know that the nuclear weapons programme was stopped, much to the relief of scientists for whom it had become a nightmare compounded by the Iraqi's own technical incompetence and Saddam's megalomania.
Neither UNSCR 678 nor UNSCR 687 gave legal cover for Blair ordering British forces to attack Iraq in March 2003. Not only did the likes of Adam Roberts say so, but so did the leading Foreign Office lawyer on the Iraq case, Elizabeth Wilmshurst. She resigned the night the war broke out on March 19/20 2003. The lone legal voice backing Blair was Christopher Greenwood QC of the LSE and Cambridge.
Presumably we are going to be told why Lord Goldsmith listened to Greenwood and not many other people.
But we know already that Blair had decided to pitch British troops into the fray alongside the Americans almost a year before the dithering and dickering by Lord Goldsmith in March 2003. The Downing Street memo of July 2002 tells us that MI6 had already warned that the Americans had decided to attack Iraq, and would "fix the intelligence" make the case.
So what did Blair and his court fix to make their case? The way they went about preparing the parliament and country for war, more by omission than commission in many respects, means that this kind of political conjuring trick can is unlikely to work again. First there are the "intelligence dossiers", the September 24 2002 dossier to which the government spun the headline "45 minutes to destruction", and the "dodgy" dossier of February, grubbed up from old theses on the internet. Never again will a government get away with such a tacky performance again. Blair's team dressed mutton as lamb in the September dossier, for it wasn't an intelligence document in essence at all - it was the musing of the Joint Intelligence Committee run through the spin-dryer of the Number 10 press and information machine. Even Alastair Campbell himself, the Mephistopheles of spin, had to admit the February "dodgy" dossier was a mistake.
We know from Clare Short, and in this she can hardly be mistaken, that there was minimal discussion of the pros and cons for war in the full cabinet. Yet Blair did seek the approval of parliament for ordering the troops to war. In this he broke new ground. In the Falklands campaign of 1982 and at the launch of the Operation Desert Storm counter-offensive of 1990 into 1991 parliament was summoned in emergency session to discuss the crisis but not to empower action - the prime ministers of the day still reserved the royal prerogative for decision and action in time of war.
The Blair antics over Iraq mean a new precedent has been set. Never again, except in the direst emergency possibly only after a major direct attack on the UK territory, will a prime minister be able to palm off a few half-baked background documents claiming to be intelligence background as the foundation of the case for war. Now will he be able to order a major operation or deployment without full consent of parliament.
Curiously there appear to be a few political nostalgics trying to make the case for Blair. On Monday this week Andrew Marr and Jeremy Paxman interviewed the Nobel laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz about his new book The Trillion Dollar War. Stiglitz argues that this is America's most expensive war, bar the second world war, and has played a significant role in the plunge to recession and fiscal carelessness in the US and beyond. Marr (Radio 4) and Paxman (Newsnight), both no strangers to the court of King Blair, raised the same line of argument to counter Stiglitz's proposition that Iraq has been an unnecessary and unjustified war: it had been a good thing to get rid of Saddam, wasn't the "surge" working, and couldn't it after all bring peace and stability in the Middle East, making Iraq a secure supplier of oil? Stiglitz stuck to his guns: there had been no weapons of mass destruction, no al-Qaida presence of note, no connection to the 9/11 attacks. In short Iraq was a war of choice, and a very bad choice indeed.
The forthcoming disclosure of the cabinet documents will not change the way prime ministers and attorneys general behave in future wars. As explained above, what happened in 2002 to 2003 could never happen again in the way it did. Some in the House of Lords are now pressing for the UK to have a new war powers act along the lines of the American equivalent. But given Blair's need to defer to parliament we have more or less got that.
What we haven't got is a full and completely transparent inquiry into how the Iraq war came about, and the lessons to be drawn from it. This happened after the Boer war, Suez and the Falklands, though Blair and Brown have steadfastly refused a similar investigation and report up to now. The order to disclose the legal arguments for the war under the Freedom of Information Act makes the case yet again. It will have to happen, sooner or later. One cannot wait.