British Prime Minister’s Iraq War Decision: Secretive, Deceptive, Misleading

Clare Short, former Cabinet minister for international development in British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s cabinet at the time Iraq was invaded in March 2003, testified before the Iraq inquiry today (February 2, 2010).

Short confirmed a picture of exclusion and secrecy in official deliberations prior to Britain’s decision to launch the invasion of Iraq with the United States and minor allies in what President George W Bush called the ‘coalition of the willing’. She was the second member of Tony Blair’s Cabinet to resign in May 2003, two months after ex-foreign secretary and then leader of the House of Commons, Robin Cook, walked out on the eve of the invasion.

Clare Short said that Blair and ‘his mates’ decided war was necessary and everything was done on ‘a wing and a prayer’. She accused Blair’s personal friend and Attorney General Lord Goldsmith of misleading the Cabinet. She said Cabinet was not a ‘decision-making body’ and called Parliament a ‘rubber stamp’.  

She said the Cabinet was not told that Goldsmith secretly asked Blair on March 14, 2003 to give a written confirmation that Saddam Hussein was in breach of previous UN resolutions.

Meanwhile, the senior legal adviser at the British Foreign Office, Sir Michael Wood, whose objections about the legality of going to war were vetoed by government, submitted a second written statement to the inquiry.  Entitled The Rights and Responsibilities of Occupying Powers, the statement made clear that, after Saddam Hussein’s overthrow, the United States and Britain as occupying powers were legally responsible for maintaining public order and safety; and respecting, unless absolutely prevented, the laws in force in Iraq.

These provisions are stipulated in the 1907 Hague Regulations and the Forth Geneva Convention of 1949.

Sir Michael said: “While some changes to the legislative and administrative structures may be permissible if they are necessary for public order and safety, more wide-ranging reforms of governmental and administrative structures are not lawful … The Forth Geneva Convention prohibits, subject to limited exceptions, any alteration in the status of public officials.”

The implications of actions by occupying powers in violation of these duties and responsibilities under international law are enormous. Regardless of them, Paul Bremer, the first administrator of Iraq, dissolved the country’s administrative structure, the armed forces and the police by Orders Number 1 and 2 in the wake of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

Those actions, more than any other, created a vacuum in Iraq with disastrous consequences.

British government legal experts break ranks with Tony Blair on Iraq war

Seventy-two hours before Britain’s former Prime Minister Tony Blair appears at the Iraq inquiry in London, pressure is piling up on Blair and his close advisers who took the decision to join President George W Bush in launching the invasion of Iraq in March 2003.

On Tuesday (January 26, 2010) the senior government lawyer at the time, Sir Michal Wood, told the inquiry in a written statement that the invasion of Iraq had “no legal basis in international law”. Sir Michael was the highest-ranking legal adviser at the British Foreign Office when Iraq was invaded.

In his statement, he said he disagreed with the advice of the Attorney-General Lord Goldsmith.

Sir Michael considered the use of military force in March 2003 to be ‘contrary to international law’, but said that Jack Straw, then foreign secretary in Tony Blair’s government, rejected the advice. Instead, Mr Straw told the US Vice President Dick Cheney that Britain would ‘prefer’ a second UN resolution, but it would be ‘OK’ if they tried and failed [in getting the resolution passed in the Security Council].

Sir Michael disclosed: “He [foreign secretary] took the view that I was being very dogmatic and that international law was pretty vague and that he wasn’t used to people taking such a firm position. When he [Straw] had been at the Home Office, he had often been advised things were unlawful but he had gone ahead anyway and won in the courts.”

Sir Michael told the Iraq inquiry that this was probably the first and only occasion that a minister rejected his legal advice in this way.

Sir Michael’s deputy at the Foreign Office was Elizabeth Wilmshurst. She followed him to the Iraq inquiry. She disclosed that the opinion of the entire legal team was unanimous that an invasion of Iraq would be illegal [without specific UN approval for the use of force]. She said the view among civil service officials was that an invasion without such legal basis would be a ‘nightmare scenario’.

Wilmshurst said that she regarded the invasion of Iraq illegal and therefore did not feel able to continue in her post. Wilmshurst decided to leave government. Explaining her decision, she said she would have been required to ‘support and maintain the Government’s position’ in international forums. The rules of international law on the use of force by States are at the heart of international law.

Wilmshurst said: “Collective security, as opposed to unilateral military action, was a central purpose of the Charter of the United Nations. Acting contrary to the Charter, as I perceived the Government to be doing, would have the consequence of damaging the United Kingdom’s reputation as a State committed to the rule of law in international relations and to the United Nations.”

The Iraq inquiry in the United Kingdom continues in the wake of the recent Dutch inquiry, which concluded that the Netherland’s political support for the 2003 invasion had no legal basis. That, and the weight of evidence emerging in London, would, in my view, make it very difficult for the UK inquiry to come out with a conclusion without an acknowledgement of that being the case.

The Iraq inquiry in Britain is to continue beyond May 2010, by when a general election is due. The consequences of the decision to go to war in Iraq will undoubtedly be a significant topic of the political debate in the run up to the election.

In Iraq itself, a suicide car bomber killed at least 18 people and injured around 80 others at a government forensics laboratory in Baghdad on Tuesday. The latest attack came as funerals were taking place of victims of the previous day’s bomb attacks, killing more than 35 people. The BBC correspondent in the Iraqi capital, Jim Muir, says these attacks are clearly coordinated and appear to be aimed at undermining security as Iraq prepares for a general election in March.

Britain’s Iraq inquiry reveals more

As we await the appearance of Britain’s ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair before the Iraq Inquiry, recent witnesses have revealed more about the manner in which he made the decision to join President George W Bush to invade Iraq in March 2003.

Former Cabinet Secretary Lord Turnbull, Britain’s most senior civil servant between 2002 and 2005, told the inquiry that those cabinet members who had concerns about invading Iraq were given almost no time to discuss the issue. Lord Turnbull said Prime Minister Blair surrounded himself with those who would not disagree with him. With the exception of Leader of the House of Commons Robin Cook, who resigned after the decision to invade Iraq, “none of [the Cabinet] suggested a serious change of direction … They were all conditioned to buy the intelligence presentations.” Blair had been a ‘regime changer’ from the outset, but felt ‘obliged’ to seek UN permission for the invasion.

The British government’s senior law officer, Lord Goldsmith, had given advice to the Cabinet that was different to the version he gave Prime Minister Blair. All along, Blair has argued that the brief statement Goldsmith subsequently gave the cabinet on the eve of the invasion was a ‘fair summary’ of the attorney general’s latest legal advice. However, it is now known that the only official legal opinion Goldsmith drew up was the one which contained serious caveats about the lawfulness of an invasion.  

Earlier, Blair’s former communications director Alastair Campbell revealed to the inquiry that:  

  • Blair told President George W Bush: If [disarming of Iraq] cannot be done diplomatically, and it has to be done militarily, Britain will be there.
  • The message was contained in letters written by Mr Blair personally and kept “pretty private” among a small group of aides and ministers, and not made part of the normal Whitehall system of document-keeping.
  • Clare Short, the international development secretary, was excluded from key meetings on Iraq, because she could not be trusted to keep sensitive information secret. She did not fully support the government’s position on Iraq.
  • Campbell said the claim that Saddam Hussein could launch weapons of mass destruction in 45-minute was not very significant. “In the discussions [producing the dossier], it wasn’t that big a deal.”
  • The current prime minister Gordon Brown, then chancellor of the exchequer in Tony Blair’s cabinet, was closely involved in discussions on Iraq in the run-up to the war.

These revelations reinforce the following questions -

1 What about the constitutional requirement of collective decision-making and responsibility in cabinet government and legality of a decision reached without an informed and full discussion among all cabinet members?  

2. Did Blair mislead the British Paliament and his Cabinet when they went along with his recommendation to join the US-led invasion of Iraq?

3. If the Iraq invasion was illegal, then should war reparations to the injured parties be paid and by whom?

Meanwhile, an investigation into the Dutch government’s political support for the invasion of Iraq has found that the invasion violated international law. The Dutch inquiry was chaired by former Supreme Court judge Willibrord Davids.