This won’t read like Faulkner, but I think it’s important to compare three passages written by serious analysts documenting the pathway and decision-making chronology leading up to the Iraq War.
Journalist Bob Woodward, former British Ambassador to the U.S. Christopher Meyer, and British Queen’s Counsel and University of London Law Professor Philippe Sands each focus on the goings-on at the January 31, 2003 meeting between British Prime Minister Tony Blair and President George W. Bush.
This meeting was one of the fundamental points in the history of the Iraq War as it became known as the “second resolution” meeting — and it occurred five days before Secretary of State Colin Powell’s 5 February 2003 speech at the UN titled “Iraq: Denial and Deception.”
What is fascinating is that it is clear that the meeting was more facade of diplomacy about a needed second UN resolution than substance. Sands makes the case that Blair and Bush had decided to pursue war no matter the consequences of diplomatic efforts underway and despite the absence of empirical evidence that Iraq had WMDs. The fact that Bush kept proposing ways to get Iraq to react in such a way to put them in material breach of U.N. resolutions implies that government lawyers believed that Iraq’s previous breaches were not compelling enough to justify war.
However, read for yourself these accounts.
In the first, in my view, Bob Woodward whitewashes the meeting and displays no curiosity or interest in delving beneath the surface of what might really have been going on beyond the public statements delivered. Woodward’s “Watergate era” honed sensibilities are no where in evidence in his account.
Second, Ambassador Christopher Meyer who had not been allowed to be in the meeting between Bush, Blair, and their closest aides, furthers the fiction that Blair was still pursuing a second resolution as if it mattered. What Meyer did not realize in his account in which Bush and Blair both seemed “stressed” after their meeting, is that David Manning — the current British Ambassador to the U.S. and then close foreign policy aide to Tony Blair — had recorded Blair’s firm, unquestioned resolve to support Bush’s course against Hussein.
The third is a devastating and empirically rich indictment of Bush and Blair, particularly Blair, who showed no resistance at all to Bush’s intention that war be the outcome no matter what diplomatic facade had to be created to move things forward.
What follows are three selections, each recording what happened between Tony Blair and George W. Bush on 31 January 2003.
(Please note that the Philippe Sands selection is only available in the very latest 2005 edition of the UK version of his book — which has not yet been distributed in the United States.)
Bob Woodward, Plan of Attack, pp. 296-297:
On Friday, January 31, Bush was scheduled to meet again with Tony Blair at Camp David, but a mix of rain and ice kept them at the White House.
Blair told Bush that he needed to get a second U.N. resolution. He had promised that to his political party at home, and he was confident that together he and Bush could rally the U.N. and the international community.
Bush was set against a second resolution. This was a rare case in which Cheney and Powell agreed. Both were opposed. The first resolution had taken seven weeks, and this one would be much harder. Powell didn’t think it was necessary. He thought a judge would rule that 1441 was enough to move without a second resolution.
There was another complication. The first resolution had passed 15 to 0 so that would be considered the norm. Of course, it was not the norm but a dramatic exception. In 1990, the U.N.’s resolution on the Gulf War had passed 12 to 2, with Yemen and Cuba voting no and China abstaining. Now if they didn’t get 15 to 0 on a second resolution, it could be seen as weak.
But Blair had the winning argument. It was necessary for him politically. It was no more complicated than that, an absolute political necessity. Blair said he needed the favor. Please.
That was language Bush understood. “If that’s what you need, we will go flat out to try and help you get it,” he told Blair. He also didn’t want to go alone, and without Britain, he would be close to going alone. The President and the administration were worried about what Steve Hadley had termed “the imperial option.”
So they were back in the briar patch as far as Cheney was concerned.
“Blair’s got to deal with his own Parliament, his own people, but he has to deal with the French-British relationship as well, and its context with Europe,” Bush recalled later. “And so he’s got a very difficult assignment. Much more difficult, by the way, than the American President in some ways. This was the period where slowly but surely the French became the issue inside Britain.”
Bush called it “the famous second resolution meeting” and said Blair “absolutely” asked for help.
Christopher Meyer, DC Confidential: The Controversial Memoirs of Britain’s Ambassador to the U.S. at the Time of 9/11 and the Iraq War, pp. 261-262:
Blair paid one more visit to Washington before the outbreak of war. The meeting with Bush, on 31 January 2003, took place against a deeply unpromising background.
Transatlantic relations were in a trough. Blair’s famous bridge between Europe and America was sinking beneath the waves. Chirac and Schroeder remained vocal critics of the impending war. British diplomacy in Paris, Moscow and Berlin were wholly ineffectual, though through no fault of the ambassadors.
Rumsfeld enraged the French and the Germans by dividing Europe into the Old (bad) and the New (good). Paris and Berlin were all the more angry because the American policy of divide and rule in Europe worked.
Meanwhile, Blix’s second report to the UN, this time favourable to the Iraqis, left the judgement on SaddamÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s compliance with Resolution 1441 in a bog of uncertainty.
Blair, I judged, was going to find a pretty implacable Bush, impatient and deeply disillusioned with France and Germany. Unless we had some good ideas for sending Saddam into exile, the Prime Minister’s task looked to be to try to ensure that we and the US went to war in the best possible company. That would be made much easier if Blix found the ‘smoking gun’ or made a sequence of fortnightly reports saying that the Iraqis were still not cooperating fully as required by Resolution 1441.
But Bush did not have the time to see if Blix would make the case. As I had always believed, exhausting the UN route was going to mean different things in Washington and in London. The timetables for war and for the inspections programme could not be made to synchronize.
Bush was undecided about the merits of going for a second Security Council Resolution to authorize war, something which had become a political imperative in London. Blair was coming to Washington looking also for delay in starting the military campaign, which had been scheduled for mid-February. On both points the President would have to be convinced.
The meeting looked more uncomfortable that it was. Blair won his delay in starting the war for the simple reason that the Americans were not ready to go until the second half of March. I had been hearing this for some time from our military staff at the embassy and from a White House source.
The latter had told me as early as October that the notion of going to war in January 2003, the original contingency timetable, was not feasible. The main obstacle had always been the Turks and their refusal to allow troops to pass through their country en route for northern Iraq. Ultimately fruitless negotiations with Turkey continued until almost the last moment. This slowed much American planning.
When, just before their press conference, President and Prime Minister came down from a tete-a-tete meeting upstairs in the White House, it looked at first as if Blair had secured Bush’s solid support for a second Resolution.
We were all milling around in the State Dining Room, advisers from both sides, as Bush and Blair put the final touches to what they were going to say to the media at the usual press conference in the main lobby of the While House.
Bush had a notepad on which he had written a form of words on the second Resolution which sounded to me pretty forward-leaning. He read it out. Ari Fleischer, Bush’s press secretary, said that Bush had never said this before and it would be a big story. Condi commented that she and others in the administration had already said something very similar in public.
That, said Fleischer, is not the same thing as the President saying it. There was a silence. I waited for Blair to say that he needed something as supportive as possible. He said nothing. I waited for somebody on the No. 10 team to say something. Nothing was said; I had not been in the meeting — but I cursed myself afterwards for not piping up.
At the press conference Bush gave only perfunctory and lukewarm support for a second Resolution. It was neither his nor Blair’s finest performance. The looked stressed and out of sorts. Bush immediately got irritable with his first questioner, who tried on him the kind of three-part question he does not like.
Then Blair kept giving answers that were too long as he sought to make the case against Iraq from first principles. The British press later reported that they looked to have had a row. This was exactly as Alastair Campbell predicted when he went upstairs to the private dining room to have supper with the President and First Lady.
I left Washington and retired from the Diplomatic Service a month later. The battle for a second Resolution was still being fought. The Americans had finally swung in behind us, but their diplomacy was as ineffectual as ours. We went to war without benefit of a further Resolution and in the company of a motley, ad hoc coalition of allies.
I would have liked to be in Washington a little longer for the denouement and war; but heart valve disease got in the way.
Philippe Sands Lawless World: America and the Breaking of Global Rules; UK Edition, February 2006, pp. 271-274:
What is clear is that by January 2003 there was very real concern in the British and American governments that it could prove difficult to establish that Iraq was in material breach.
In early January 2003 Mr. Straw wrote a private note to the Prime Minister, expressing the hope that the inspections by Dr. Blix and Mr. ElBaradei would produce a big smoking gun that would be sufficient for them to report a breach of obligation by Iraq sufficient to trigger Operational Paragraphs 11 and 12 of 1441, a further meeting of the Security Council, and a resolution authorizing the use of force.
That did not happen.
Mr. Straw’s note worried that it should not be assumed that over the next three weeks there would be sufficient non-cooperation by Hussein in respect of interviews outside Iraq to ass up to a material breach under OP4.
This indicates that in January 2003 Mr. Straw did not consider that Iraq was in material breach. His note also describes a call four days earlier in which Colin Powell had recognized the danger of proceeding without a second resolution, and told him that “if there was an insufficient case for a second resolution, there would be equally an insufficient case for the US to go unilateral”.
On 31 January 2003 President Bush and Prime Minister Blair had a two-hour meeting at the White House, accompanied by six close aides and advisors. The meeting addressed a second UN Security Council resolution. It focused on the need to identify evidence of material breach by Saddam Hussein of his obligations under Security Council resolution 1441.
The matters addressed and positions taken are recorded in a note of this meeting prepared by one of the participants. The letter indicates concern about the absence of evidence and the need for further helpful reports from Blix and further inspections that turn up new WMD evidence. This letter is of considerable significance, since it reflects the state of mind of the two leaders and the fait accompli that existed even at that time.
Two aspects stand out.
First, the letter confirms that the decision to go to war had already been taken by President Bush. This was irrespective of what Hans Blix found, or whether the UN Security Council did or did not adopt a further resolution.
The letter records President Bush telling Prime Minister Blair that the US would put its full weight behind efforts to get another resolution and would twist arms and threaten. But the President states that if there was no resolution, military action would follow anyway.
The President also told those present that the start date for the military campaign was now penciled in for 10 March. That was when the bombing would begin.
The military timetable meant that an early second resolution was needed. And the President did not mince his words: the diplomatic strategy had to be arranged around the military planning.
What was the British Prime Minister’s reaction to this?
He raised no objection. On the contrary, he said that he was ‘solidly with the President and ready to do whatever it took to disarm Saddam’.
As to a second Security Council resolution, Blair wanted one only because it would make it much easier politically to deal with Saddam.
All of this is consistent with the conclusion that Blair too had taken his decision by 31 January, well before he had received legal advice from the Attorney General, and even before he had asked the Attorney for the advice that eventually arrived on 7 March 2003 with its unhelpful content. There is no indication that Blair’s views were any way dependent upon any legal advice he might receive, and there is no reservation of Britain’s position.
Against this background, there appears to be no basis to any claim — such as that made by former British Ambassador to the US, Sir Christopher Meyer — that by this date the British Prime Minister could have had any leverage over the US decision and that somehow Blair had missed an opportunity. President Bush had made clear his intentions. Blair responded by telling him that he was solidly with him.
The note of this meeting is significant for a second reason. It is clear that they had no information of their own which could give rise to an expectation of hard evidence emerging that would be sufficient to deliver the politically desirable second Security Council resolution.
They were dependent on Blix to deliver helpful reports and new WMD evidence, and to make a significant find. The Prime Minister’s view was that a second Security Council resolution would provide an insurance policy against the unexpected and international cover, including with the Arabs. A further resolution was in reach, Blair hopefully suggested, but he was concerned that Blix’s second and third reports would not be as helpful as his first.
How then to establish Saddam’s non-cooperation with the inspectors, which President Bush described as the key to the case? The absence of hard intelligence held by the US or Britain becomes blindingly clear when the discussion turns to the possibility that the UN inspectors might not deliver the smoking gun that was being sought. Other options were considered.
President Bush told the British Prime Minister The US was thinking of flying U2 reconnaissance aircraft with fighter cover over Iraq, painted in UN colours. If Saddam fired on them, he would be in breach.
It was also possible that a defector could be brought out who would give a public presentation about Saddam’s WMD, and there was also a small possibility that Saddam would be assassinated.
These extraordinary suggestions indicate the paucity of available information at the end of January and the limited prospects being held out for the impact of the presentation that was to be made just a few days later by Colin Powell at the Security Council. By the end of January there was a growing sense of desperation that was almost as palpable as the absence of evidence to support the view that Saddam held any WMD.
I think Philippe Sands wins.
For those of you interested in hearing his remarks and responses to questions, you can listen to him on line in a session I moderated last Thursday.
— Steve Clemons