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.