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.

Tony Blair’s testimony before the Iraq war inquiry

I watched British ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair’s six-hour testimony before the Iraq inquiry in London today (January 29, 2010). It was a stubborn performance in his own defense and that of his close friend and ally, former US President George W Bush. Here are ten points made by Blair that struck me particularly:

  1. Blair said he had told Bush from the start that if the United States went to war in Iraq he would be with him.
  2. He did what was right in joining the invasion and would do it again.  
  3. George W Bush decided UN backing for the invasion was not necessary.
  4. Russia and France, in Blair’s view, changed their position which prevented the second United Nations resolution authorizing force.
  5. The British cabinet did not want to be part of the legal debate on the Iraq invasion – The inquiry panel thought it should have been.
  6. Blair asserted that a humanitarian crisis after the invasion of Iraq was avoided – The evidence is contrary and overwhelming.
  7. He claimed that Iran today posed a greater threat than in 2003. He indicated that a similar military action might now be necessary against Iran.
  8. Claimed that extensive preparations had been made for the aftermath of the invasion, until al Qaeda and Iran began to play the role they did.
  9. What became clear in time [in answering questions about multi-layered conflict, including civil war] was not a lack of resources but a lack of security.
  10. At the end, the Iraq inquiry Chairman, Sir John Chilcot, asked Blair whether he had any regrets for the very high cost of invading Iraq, including deaths of British troops and Iraqi civilians. Blair had no regrets.

The inquiry chairman hinted that Blair might be called again before the panel. As the day’s proceedings ended, the former prime minister was booed from the public gallery and there were shouts of ‘come on’, ‘liar’ and ‘murderer’. Outside, there were demonstrations throughout the day.

There are those who feel Blair’s cross-examination should have been tougher. My view is that the panel’s questioning was pointed, persistent and tough.

It revealed the mindset that remains unaltered nearly seven years after he and George W Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq, with disastrous consequences.

How the British Attorney General changed his legal advice on Iraq war

A day after the two most senior legal experts [Sir Michael Wood and Elizabeth Wilmshurst] at the British Foreign Office told the Iraq inquiry their advice that an invasion of Iraq would be illegal was ignored by Tony Blair’s government, Attorney-General Lord Goldsmith faced the inquiry panel on Wednesday (January 27).  

The main points of Goldsmith’s evidence under close cross-examination:

  • He admitted to changing his earlier opinion that an invasion without a specific United Nations resolution authorizing the use of force would be illegal, party due to American and British diplomatic accounts of private UN negotiations.  
  • Until the first week of February 2003, about six weeks before Iraq was invaded, Goldsmith had repeatedly warned the Prime Minister’s Office that a second UN resolution was necessary.
  • But after a visit to the United States, where he met officials including Secretary of States Condoleezza Rice, Goldsmith said he was convinced that experienced US lawyers would not have ‘stumbled into’ giving France a chance to veto a new resolution on military action.
  • He had to decide which side he would prefer to be on.
  • Goldsmith said it was ‘impossible’ for him at the time to ask the French what their legal interpretation [of going to war] was.
  • One inquiry panel member, Roderick Lyne, challenged Goldsmith to explain the ‘gap’ between French and Russian public statements and ‘second-hand’ descriptions of their ‘private’ positions [as shown by American officials].
  • It was pointed out on BBC Newsnight that exchanges on the question of legality remained confined to Lord Goldsmith and Prime Minister Tony Blair’s office.

Britain and the United States went to the UN Security Council a second time to get authorization for war. Russia and France would have vetoed it had it been put to vote; in the end, there was not even a majority of Security Council members for it.

As authorization could not be obtained, the conclusion must be that the Security Council did not give approval for military action in Iraq. Therefore, the invasion in March 2003 had no legal basis.

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.

Blair’s Iraq Confession

(Informed Comment, December 13, 2009)

Deepak Tripathi, former BBC journalist and author of the book Overcoming the Bush Legacy in Iraq and Afghanistan (Potomac, January 2010), writes in guest op-ed for IC:

Since the launch of the Iraq Inquiry in London at the end of July 2009, covers have been coming off with increasing frequency to reveal the circumstances leading to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. And not always before the inquiry chairman, John Chilcot. The latest is the admission by Tony Blair, then British prime minister and President George W Bush’s closest ally. Blair now says that he ‘would still have thought it right to remove’ Saddam Hussein even without weapons of mass destruction; he would have had to ‘use and deploy different arguments’ to achieve the end.

The admission, made in a BBC program, amounts to a complete repudiation of Blair’s own position held since before the invasion: that British intelligence had evidence of there being weapons of mass destruction with Saddam Hussein; some of those weapons were ‘deployable within 45 minutes of an order to use them’; and that he had no doubt that the threat was ‘serious and current’. On this assessment of the British government, published in September 2002, Blair had sought the parliament’s approval, which he secured in March 2003 despite a rebellion by 139 of his own MPs. The approval was made possible due to the backing of the opposition Conservative Party for the invasion of Iraq. Two senior ministers resigned from Blair’s cabinet: Leader of the House, and foreign secretary earlier, Robin Cook and, some time later, International Development Secretary Clare Short. More