The Iraq War Inquiry: A Game of Disconnect
There is a strange disconnect between the polite and relaxed dinner table style of the Iraq War Inquiry and the explosive evidence emerging from key players in the international diplomacy world. The chatty, informal conversations between the panel and the witnesses and the orderly breaks hardly resemble the noise of war. The disconnect, however, lies only in appearance for the substance of the evidence is potentially enough to incriminate those at the very top. Jeremy Greenstock is about to give evidence, and Tony Blair is still weeks away. Still, this week’s revelations already raise serious doubt about Blair’s motives for war, and the truth of his claims pre March 2003, that war was not inevitable.
Our Man in Washington
Christopher Meyer’s evidence yesterday may just prove to be the smoking gun which war critics believed existed; only time will tell whether that gun fires into legal action or simply smoulders away. Tony Blair must be praying hard for the latter because Meyer’s evidence portrayed him fundamentally as a man who chose to follow the Americans without objective regard for either British or Iraqi interests. Confirming what had been said by senior Whitehall bureaucrats on Day One of the Inquiry, the British foreign policy position pre 9/11 was that Iraq did not feature prominently– in itself rather curious, since Britain was administering a No-Fly Zone over parts of Iraq and therefore already involved in bombing operations with the US throughout the 1990s – and the concern with the Foreign Office lay more on the “narrowing and tightening” of an effective sanctions regime.
“We were with you at first, we will stay with you til the last”
Few have forgotten Blair’s purported words of commiseration with the Americans at the Labour Party conference in October 2001. The promise that “We were with you at first; we will stay with you til the last” begins to take on sinister connotations when viewed in the context of Meyer’s evidence about how heavily Iraq featured in American brains years before the war actually began. Whilst reminding us that the Iraq Liberation Act had been signed off in 1998 by Bill Clinton, the former Ambassador described how Bush openly admitted to him early on in his Presidency that he knew nothing about foreign policy and that he would be learning from his group of “Vulcans”, led by Condoleeza Rice and Paul Wolfowitz, the man who later went on to become Deputy Defence Secretary.
Who first mentioned Iraq?
Condoleeza Rice told Meyer on the day of 9/11 itself that the Americans were investigating a link with Saddam Hussein. The seeds to this embittered war, it seems, sowed themselves whilst the rest of the world was commiserating with the American tragedy. Meyer states that “it was almost as if the people who really wanted to deal with Iraq and deal with it soon, burst out of the closet, the closet door having been blown open by the shock of 9/11. Everything changed after 9/11.”
Crucially, when did Blair decide to go to war?
Meyer believes that it was at that well-photographed meeting between Blair and Bush at the Crawford Ranch in April 2002 that the deal for the Iraq war was sealed, despite the fact that British policy at the time was one of “profound legal objection” to regime change. In his own words:-
“Now, let me be quite frank about this. Crawford was a meeting at the President’s ranch. I took no part in any of the discussions, and there was a large chunk of that time when no adviser was there, I think I don’t know whether David Manning has been before you yet, but when he comes before you, he will tell you, I think, that he went there with Jonathan Powell for a discussion of Arab/Israel and the Intifada. I think it was at that meeting that there was a kind of joint decision between Bush and Blair that Colin Powell should go to the region and get it sorted. I believe that, after that, the two men were alone in the ranch until dinner on Saturday night where all the advisers, including myself, turned up. So I’m not entirely clear to this day I know what the Cabinet Office says were the results of the meeting, but, to this day, I’m not entirely clear what degree of convergence was, if you like, signed in blood, at the Crawford ranch. There are clues in the speech which Tony Blair gave the next day at College Station, which is one of his best foreign policy speeches, a very fine piece of work.” He described that speech as being the first time Blair used the words “regime change” about Iraq and explicitly states that Blair deliberately, not inadvertently, tried to conflate the risk posed by Saddam and Al Qaeda.
Given that no evidence whatsoever ever has been produced to this effect, this amounts to a startling, though perhaps unsurprising, confirmation that Blair was ready to literally go with the Americans to the end, no matter what the consequences for either British or Iraqis. By March 2002, Meyer had been provided with a “chunky set of instructions” from Number 10 Downing Street on British foreign policy towards Iraq and Blair had taken the decision to support regime change, although he was discreet about mentioning that in public. Britain, he said, would talk the talk of regime change, but privately hoped that America would walk the walk of a UN Security Council Resolution permitting the use of force. It was, by then, he claims, a waste of time for Britain to continue to object to war, but Meyer was firm on Blair’s failure to ensure a good deal for Britain as a result of this unswerving support.
The emotional sides of Bush and Blair and the curious tale of Hans Blix
The Inquiry heard about the emotions running high in Bush and Blair’s resolve; that Bush “in his heart” wanted to kick Saddam out, and Blair, though not as “poodle-ish” as people have portrayed him, was a “great believer” in the evilness of Saddam. Hans Blix, the UN Weapons Inspector, in his autobiography describing events at the time, makes quite plain that the Inspections team were not permitted to complete their task by the American military timetabling. Meyer confirms that by Autumn 2002, when Blix’s team went into Iraq on the hunt for the non-existent WMD, the American military had already been given instructions to prepare for war and it was impossible for Blix’s team to properly conclude the inspections process.
In the mind of this writer, the evidence recalled another Blair quotation, albeit given in another context entirely, “There is no reverse gear”.
Meyer says that it was that pre-ordained military timetable that was the cause of the British and American scrambling for the smoking gun, which was never located. Bush’s January 2002 State of the Union address, full of messianic praise for America’s chosen people, was the ultimate call for war, from which there was no return. One of the extraordinary revelations of this episode is that the US Department for Defence was so unhappy with the CIA’s production of intelligence which undermined their links between Saddam and Al Qaeda that they created their own in-house intelligence operation to counter and rival the CIA.
In this context, and with an appalling lack of consistent or strong evidence on the existence of WMD, Meyer’s own evidence can be fairly summarised as suggesting that Blair capitulated as a result of his own personal beliefs on Saddam.
A plan for garlands, or a country of wreaths?
Meyer himself also warned both Blair and the Americans that there would need to be a properly planned post-war strategy. This, it appears, simply fell onto deaf ears. It never happened.
Rumsfeld and his team hoped that simply getting rid of Saddam would lead to a better Iraq. Garlands would be thrown at them and the world a better place. Iraq Body Count documents currently between 94,000 and 102,000 dead from post-conflict violence in Iraq. Other estimates put this figure higher. The disconnect between the justification for the war, the arguments put up by Blair in his premiership and in Parliament and the bloody and violent aftermath of war could scarcely be greater.
The Chilcott Inquiry has been careful to remind us that it is not a court of law, that no one is being tried, and that no one is guilty or innocent. At best, therefore, we can only make strong suggestions about what the evidence implies. No matter what evidence comes next, Meyer’s uniquely privileged insight into the US-UK relationship in those crucial years leading up to the war suggest that there truly was no credible thought process inside Britain for either British or Iraqi interests. It also very strongly suggests Blair lied when he said that war was not inevitable on its eve. The lack of evidence that existed within the US, and the steps created by the US Defence Department to overrule their CIA intelligence colleagues and create a base for war, also suggests strongly that there was no basis for the war. That it was illegal.
Just a word of warning for our mild British public who cannot face the reality of blood and gore on their morning Crunchy Nut Cornflakes. The video evidence, which can be replayed on the internet at your convenience, contains mild swearing. (http://www.iraqinquiry.org.uk/transcripts/oralevidence-bydate/091126.aspx).
London, November 27th 2009