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How Britain failed to check Bush in the run up to war
Tony Blair's full throated support of the US led to the PM failing to exert any leverage on the White House - UK support was simply taken for granted
Sir Christopher Meyer
Monday November 7, 2005
Hindsight usually follows failure. As I write, things looked bad in Iraq. At regular intervals over the last two years I have asked the same question of former colleagues in the British and American governments: in Iraq, is the glass half-empty or is it half-full? With one exception the answer has been "half-full". The exception was a trusted American friend and government official, who, after paying a recent visit to Iraq, returned to tell the White House: "We're fucked."
Even if the most optimistic predictions are finally realised for Iraq, the question will still be asked: why did the Americans and British make it so hard for themselves and even harder for Iraqis?
Iraq ran like a toxic stream through my time in Washington. When I arrived in 1997, Saddam was already playing cat and mouse with the first generation of UN weapons inspectors. It was hugely embarrassing to President Bush, and more so to Tony Blair, because he had rested his case for war exclusively on the Iraqi leader's failure to disarm.
But Saddam's real threat was his ambition and intent, and his long-term corrosion of the UN's credibility. To his credit, Blair spotted this as early as 1998. You can agree or disagree with the prime minister on Iraq, but you cannot fault him on consistency. He was a true believer in the menace of Saddam. In Washington, seeking Saddam's overthrow - or "regime change" - became official policy under Bill Clinton as long ago as 1998.
After 9/11, everything changed. The "neocon" hawks such as Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle saw Iraq as the anvil on which they could forge a realignment of the Middle East, favourable to the United States and Israel, would be struck. The new Iraq, they argued, would inject stable democracy into a region of tyrants.
Colin Powell may have thought the standard bearers of this strategy were "f***ing crazies", and history's verdict looks likely to be that it was terminally flawed both in conception and execution.
At the time, the "realists" of American foreign policy were unable to withstand the intellectual elan and polemical skill of the strategy's protagonists.
Looking back at the 18 months between 9/11 and the Iraq invasion in March 2003, one question dominates all others. It is about the inevitability of war. The integrity and reputation of Bush and Blair depend upon it. The timing of the Iraq campaign, the wisdom or otherwise of the way in which the war was executed and its aftermath managed, the controversy in Britain over the September and dodgy dossiers shape history's judgment on Bush and Blair. But they are qualitatively different from that of inevitability.
If, as many allege, they decided come hell or high water to go to war at their White House meeting on September 20 2001, or at the Crawford summit in April 2002, or at their Camp David summit in September 2002, each can be justifiably charged with duplicity on a grand scale: with deceiving his public and using the UN both as smokescreen and facilitator for a conflict that was the first option, not the last. Those who believe Bush and Blair guilty as charged see a straight linear progression from, say, the start of military planning in early 2002 to the outbreak of war on March 20 2003. Sitting in Washington, working at the coalface, talking to contacts, the road to war looked to me at that time anything but straight or the destination preordained.
I had a handful of especially important contacts in the higher echelons of the US administration - people at the heart of planning for the Iraq campaign. I was told things that were highly sensitive. Absolute trust was the indispensable ingredient in our relationship. After each conversation, one of them would always say: "Don't get me burned." Sensitive information was not given to me because my friends liked the colour of my eyes. I had to give something in return.
From a very early stage they assumed - rightly - that whatever Bush chose to do, Blair wanted to be with him. But these contacts knew the political difficulties this would cause in Westminster and inside the cabinet. They saw the tension between No 10 and the Foreign Office.
I found myself repeatedly answering the question: did something said by Jack Straw or Geoff Hoon represent the prime minister's views? Sometimes it did not. Indeed, throughout this period, the Foreign Office impinged little on my life. Between 9/11 and the day I retired at the end of February 2003, on the eve of war, I had not a single substantive policy discussion on the secure phone with the FO.
I had picked up from our military staff in the embassy the beginning of contingency planning in the Pentagon for an attack on Iraq. By the first few months of 2002 it was clear that Bush was determined to implement the official American policy of regime change, but debate inside the administration was fuelled by a growing awareness of the political risks and practical difficulties: the how and when of it was were uncertain. It made war probable but not inevitable.
It was time to put Britain's fix into American thinking before it coagulated and Blair arrived at Crawford, and I arranged to have lunch with Paul Wolfowitz. My report of this encounter was leaked.
By this stage, Tony Blair had already taken the decision to support regime change, though he was discreet about saying so in public. Blair was also firmly wedded to the Clinton proposition that, to have influence in Washington, it was necessary to hug the Americans close and that the world would inevitably be a better place without Saddam Hussein.
Support for regime change caused deep concern inside the Foreign Office. The King Charles Street legal experts' advice was that regime change, however desirable, could not alone justify going to war.
The central task was to demonstrate to the Bush administration that it was both possible and desirable to reconcile its mission with the concerns of America's friends. I knew this would call for some very plain speaking in private, but the leverage was there. For all their brave talk, the Americans always preferred to act with allies rather than without.
To reinforce my credentials with Wolfowitz, I emphasised the prime minister's commitment to regime change. I wanted him to know that we were starting from the same premise - but that, in Britain, this was not without political cost. It was the diplomacy of 'Yes, but ... '
I told him there had to be a strategy for building international support. What was needed was a clever plan that convinced people there was a legal basis for toppling Saddam. The UN had to be at the heart of such a strategy. One way was to demand the readmission of UN weapons inspectors into Iraq. If he refused, this would not only put him in the wrong but also turn the searchlight onto the security council resolutions of which he remained in breach. I also stressed the critical importance of making progress in defusing the violence between Israel and the Palestinians, to help carry Muslim opinion. Wolfowitz listened carefully, but he was noncommittal.
A similar list of conditions appears in another leaked document, drawn up following Tony Blair's summit with Bush at the president's ranch in Crawford, Texas, a few weeks later in April 2002.
This Cabinet Office note recorded that Blair had told Bush that Britain would support military action "provided that certain conditions were met". These conditions were that efforts were made to construct a coalition, that the Israel-Palestine crisis was "quiescent", and that "options for action to eliminate Iraq's WMD through UN weapons inspectors" were exhausted.
When this document was drafted none of those conditions was anywhere near to being met. Nor, at the time the leaked cabinet note was drafted, had we left the starting gate in pursuit of the UN or building an international coalition.
Since the Crawford meeting, a question began growing in my mind. When is a condition not a condition? Had Blair said at Crawford that he would be unable to support a war unless British wishes were met? I doubted it.
I was not present for the two leaders' exchanges at the ranch. For long periods they were alone together. And on the Sunday morning, Blair had given a significant speech on the subject of pre-emption.
The lesson of 9/11, Blair said, was that you did not wait to be hit if you saw a threat coming. You dealt with it before it materialised. Saddam Hussein was such a threat. Doing nothing about him was not an option.
For the first time in my hearing, Blair had publicly embraced regime change. But it was another passage in the speech that made me sit up. In a reference to democratic values, Blair said that when "America is fighting for those values, then, however tough, we fight with her - no grandstanding, no offering implausible and impractical advice from the touchline." To an American audience it was another unconditional statement of solidarity among several that Blair had uttered since 9/11. His words were heard, as they were meant to be, as a commitment to stand by America, however the cards fell but the commitment was not the same thing as an operational decision to go to war in the spring of 2003 even if it was the probable outcome.
Preconditions do not mix easily, if at all, with a commitment like that. They become instead what you would like to have, if possible, rather than what you insist on. There comes a point where, if you hug too close, it becomes an end in itself.
As the outcome of the Crawford summit began to percolate through the American administration, this became rapidly apparent. In the middle of May I had a conversation with a senior contact at the heart of contingency planning for Iraq, who warned me that the "buts" in our "yes, but" position were being forgotten. People were hearing what they wanted to hear. By early July I told London that the UK risked being taken for granted. We were getting too little in return for our public support.
This was a lousy backdrop to taking part in any military action against Iraq. There needed to be a plain-speaking conversation between prime minister and president. Blair sent a message to Washington - one of a pithy series in his characteristic short-sentence, short-paragraph style.
At the beginning of September 2002, just before Blair arrived for new talks at Camp David, Bush announced what London desperately wanted to hear. He would go to the UN to seek support for tackling Saddam.
It is hard to gauge Britain's influence on his decision. A private meeting between Bush and Colin Powell on August 5 looks to have been decisive.
A note of this meeting later found its way into my hands; it recorded Powell's compelling description of the likely damage to American interests around the world if the US chose to go it alone against Saddam.
Something then occurred to me: Britain was acquiring the status of indispensable ally. I had depressed myself by the thought that Blair's unconditional support for Bush had destroyed British leverage; but it dawned on me that the Americans really needed us by their side if it came to war. "Scooter" Libby, Cheney's chief of staff, said to me later that we were the only ally that mattered. That was a powerful lever. Bush's decision to take the UN route was welcome, as far as it went, but it left a host of questions unanswered.
Just before Blair arrived at Camp David, I received a phone call from one of the most experienced and prominent foreign policy practitioners of the Clinton administration.
The familiar voice warned me that Cheney, Bush's sometimes intimidating vice-president, would be present throughout Blair's discussions with the president. "How the hell do you know?" I asked. "Don't ask, don't tell," was the enigmatic reply. "But Blair had better watch out."
The voice was right. Cheney attended all the meetings, including those where Blair and Bush were alone with their closest aides. After one of these conclaves Bush emerged to announce that Blair had "cojones", I may have been the only member of the waiting British team who understood this meant balls. It was a tribute to Blair's unequivocal reaffirmation to Bush of his earlier commitment to stand by the Americans, including in a war. This was what the Americans wanted from the Camp David summit.
Bush, in return would go to the UN to give Saddam one last chance to meet his international obligations.
There were also many other policy gaps that still needed filling. Biggest of all, post-war Iraq was a blind spot in Washington.
The White House appeared to have bought fully into the neocon idea that with the overthrow of Saddam, all would be sweetness and light, with automatic benefits elsewhere in the Middle East.
This failure to grasp the political nature of the Iraqi enterprise, and the need to think about the peace as well as the war, led to many of the difficulties later experienced by the US and its allies.
Diplomatic arm-twisting at the UN continued with tortured slowness. Bush's patience was being tested by the slowness of negotiations, and I warned No 10 to prepare for everything going wrong.
In early October, I visited the great US naval base at Norfolk, Virginia, and spent the day on the massive nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, USS Harry S Truman. The captain told me they were ready to sail for the Gulf at any time. This raised the most crucial question of all. Had US mobilisation reached such a point that there was already an insoluble contradiction between the planned timing of military action and the timetable for weapons inspections, if and when the inspectors got back into Iraq? When I put this last point to a White House contact, I was told that the president had not yet signed off on going to war. Nothing was yet irrevocable.
I knew that I was in a tiny minority in thinking at the time that if it all went wrong at the UN negotiations, and the US was faced with going to war alone, it seemed to me that Bush might blink. Or, to put it another way: what Britain decided to do in such circumstances could be the decisive factor in the White House.
Then, in November 2002, came a breakthrough - the passage of UN Resolution 1441, demanding a full and final disclosure of all Saddam's weapons. Saddam agreed to comply and the weapons inspectors went back in. There was a brief period of hope that Saddam could be disarmed peacefully.
Against a backdrop of intensifying military preparations, anxiety gripped the Bush administration. It feared a prolonged inspection process that failed to reveal Saddam's WMD; troops going stale as they kicked their heels; allies going off the boil; and a once-and-for-all opportunity to be rid of Saddam slipping through American fingers. The issue of the moment became how to find the "smoking gun" that would justify action against Saddam - the irrefutable proof that he had weapons of mass destruction.
The risk was that, through impatience and excessive pressure on the weapons inspectors, America would shatter any international coalition for war before it had even got started. I no longer thought that, in the event of opposition to war from most of the UN security council, Bush would blink. Yet he would still have an agonising decision to take early in 2003. And if it was agonising for him, it would be doubly so for Blair.
The advice the British prime minister then gave the US president would never have been more important in my time in Washington. It could even be the swing vote for war or peace. The pendulum never swung back again. If the president had left himself any space to step back from war, he closed it down early with his state of the union speech on January 29 2003.
Even by Bush's standards the speech was unusually messianic in tone. The destruction of Saddam was a crusade against evil to be undertaken by God's chosen nation: "This call of history has come to the right people."
Blair now paid one more visit to Washington. The meeting with Bush on January 31 2003 took place against a deeply unpromising background. Transatlantic relations were in a trough. British attempts to overcome France and Germany's vocal opposition to war were sinking beneath the waves. The prime minister's best hope seemed to be to ensure that we and the US went to war in the best possible company. To do this, he needed to secure Bush's solid support for a second UN resolution, explicitly sanctioning military action.
When just before their press conference president and prime minister came down from the tete-a-tete meeting upstairs in the White House it looked at first as if Blair had secured Bush's solid support for a second resolution. We were all milling around the state dining room, advisers from both sides, as Bush and Blair put the final touches to what they were going to say to the media at the usual press conference in the main lobby of the White House. Bush had a note pad on which he had written a form of words which sounded to me pretty forward leaning. He read it out. Ari Fleischer, Bush's press secretary said that Bush had never said this before and it would be a big story. Condoleezza Rice said that she and others in the administration had already said something very similar in public. That, said Fleischer, is not the same thing as the president saying it. There was a silence. I waited for Blair to say that he needed something as supportive as possible. He said nothing. I waited for somebody on the No 10 team to say something.
Nothing was said. I cursed myself afterwards for not piping up. At the press conference Bush gave only perfunctory and lukewarm support for a second resolution. It was neither his nor Blair's finest performance.
I left Washington and retired from the diplomatic service a month later. We went to war without benefit of a further resolution and in the company of a motley, ad hoc coalition of allies.