The People v. Tony Blair: The Road to War
Extract from Chris Nineham's 2013 book The People v. Tony Blair
“Either Tony knows something the rest of us don’t know, or he’s insane.” Unnamed government minister, March 2003.
It is not part of the official version of events, but it is a fact that many in George Bush’s cabinet saw 9/11 as an opportunity. The word, and others similar, keeps coming up. At the first post-9/11 strategy cabinet, vice president Dick Cheney argued bluntly that events presented them with a chance to strengthen the US position in the Middle East. Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz was equally straightforward. 9/11, he said, “gave the U.S. a window to go after Hussein.” A little later, by her own admission, Condoleezza Rice called together senior staff of the National Security Council to discuss “how do you capitalize on these opportunities.”
A group of US foreign policy officials and advisors including Donald Rumsfeld, Richard Perle, Richard Armitage, John Bolton and Paul Wolfowitz had been promoting a turn to a much more aggressive foreign policy for years. They were organised around William Kristol’s Project for the New American Century (PNAC), they were known as the neo-conservatives, and they were particularly focused on Iraq. Eighteen of them – eleven of whom were to end up serving in the Bush administration – sent a joint letter to the Clinton administration in early 1998 criticising its foreign policy and calling for regime change in Iraq. That same year the Murdoch-owned Kristol-edited neo-conservative house magazine The Weekly Standard ran an issue headlined, ‘Saddam Must Go – A How to Guide.’
The neo-con tag was first used as a criticism of rightward moving liberals in the early 1970s. The term was adopted by the group to distinguish their thinking from both the liberal interventionists, who historically tended to rely on the United Nations and international law as vehicles for the propagation of US interests, and the isolationist right who were wary of all foreign adventures. More than anything what defined neo-cons was unilateralism based on the belief that the US was a unique force for good in the world.
Leading neo-con and Bush speech writer David Frum spelt out the logic as it applied to the Iraq adventure: If the United States overthrew Saddam Hussein next, it could create a reliable American ally in the potential super-power of the Arab world. With American troops so close, the Iranian people would be emboldened to rise against the mullahs. And as Iran and Iraq built moderate, representative pro-Western regimes, the pressure on the Saudis and the other Arab states to liberalize and modernise would intensify. Their pseudo-democratic dreaming was underpinned with hard power calculation. Frum goes on, “An American-led overthrow of Saddam Hussein would put the US more wholly in charge of the region than any power since the Ottomans, or maybe the Romans.”
Whatever the contradictions in their intellectual positions, 9/11 was the neo-cons’ moment. Though Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz lost the argument for an immediate attack on Iraq at that first meeting, the opposition was mainly tactical. Bush apparently felt the link with 9/11 was too tenuous for Iraq to be the first target. But no one was against the idea in principle, and as early as 17 September according to the Washington Post, George Bush asked the Pentagon to draft plans for an attack on Iraq.
Emboldened by ‘success’ in Afghanistan, by the time of the State of the Union address at the end of January 2002, Bush was talking like a true believer. In the speech he claimed the right to take pre-emptive action against any state perceived as a threat by the US. He listed North Korea, Iraq and Iran as the main enemies in an “Axis of Evil,” and the deliberate and deadly confusion between terrorism and “rogue states” was hardwired into his thinking. “The United States of America,” he said, “will not permit the world’s most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world’s most dangerous weapons.” By early spring 2002, minds were well and truly made up. To prove the point, Bush stuck his nose into a spring meeting between Condoleezza Rice and some senators about diplomatic initiatives with Iraq to say simply, “Fuck Saddam, we are taking him out.”
Tony Blair was not far behind. Without discussing it in cabinet, as early as the start of March 2002, Tony Blair had commissioned an Iraq Options paper from the Overseas and Defence Secretariat of the Cabinet Office outlining options for regime change. He was telling the public and the cabinet that no decisions had yet been taken, but in fact he not only knew that Washington’s mind was made up, but he had tied Britain to a war for regime change.
In a top secret memo to Blair dated 14 March 2002, David Manning, the PM’s senior advisor on foreign affairs, reported on a dinner meeting with Condoleezza Rice:
We spent a long time at dinner on Iraq. It is clear that Bush is grateful for your support and has registered that you are getting flak. I said that you would not budge in your support for regime change but you had to manage a press, a Parliament and a public opinion that was very different from anything in the United States.
Days later, British ambassador to the UN Christopher Meyer confirmed Blair had signed up to regime change in Iraq in a meeting with Paul Wolfowitz. “We backed regime change,” he reported, “but the plan had to be clever and failure was not an option.”
Blair was, then, pursuing an illegal foreign policy behind the backs of parliament and people, let alone his cabinet. His supporters’ much-repeated defence was that getting close to Bush was essential to restrain him, to try and ensure there was no action without UN support, and that moves against Iraq would be accompanied by an Israel/Palestine peace initiative. When Blair travelled to the US in April 2002 for a special summit with Bush at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, the Downing Street narrative was that he was going to persuade Bush to work multilaterally and with a long term plan for Iraq’s future.
The reality of the meeting was very different. Before it Blair was indicating to aides that Britain’s support for the US was unconditional. “We have always been with the US on this one,” he said. American participants including Colin Powell and Bush’s chief of staff Andrew Card didn’t remember any conditions on British support being tabled at the Crawford encounter, and the Cabinet Office minutes don’t mention Blair presenting any strong caveats except that the Americans must help win international opinion for action. David Manning, who was there, was very sceptical too. “I doubt the conditions were that forcibly expressed,” he says, “I doubt he even mentioned the UN at Crawford. I don’t even remember the UN coming up at Crawford.”
Blair spent most of the time at Crawford in one-to-one discussions with the president. At the joint press conference Bush singled out Blair’s lack of concern for public opinion for special praise: “History has called us into action. The thing I admire about this prime minister is that he doesn’t need a poll or a focus group to convince him of the difference between right and wrong.”
Written & Published in 2013