Friday, November 27, 2009

Chilcot inquiry: Tony Blair decided on Iraq war a year before invasion - envoy



Chilcot inquiry: Tony Blair decided on Iraq war a year before invasion - envoy

·                                 Julian Borger, diplomatic editor

·                       , Thursday 26 November 2009 20.25 GMT

George Bush and Tony Blair at Camp David in 2001

Chilcot inquiry: Tony Blair's government never considered opting out or opposing George Bush's plan to invade Iraq. Photograph: Luke Frazza/EPA

Tony Blair's government decided up to a year before the Iraq invasion that it was "a complete waste of time" to resist the US drive to oust Saddam Hussein, opting instead to offer advice on how it should be done, the former British ambassador to Washington said today.

Sir Christopher Meyer, testifying to the Chilcot inquiry into Britain's role in the war, made it clear that once the Bush administration decided to take military action, the Blair government never considered opting out or opposing it.

He said that the timing of the invasion was dictated by the "unforgiving nature" of the military build-up rather than the outcome of diplomacy or UN weapons inspections, which had not been given sufficient time. British officials were left "scrabbling for the smoking gun" – evidence for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction – as preparations continued.

Meyer, ambassador to Washington from 1997 to 2003, described a critical moment in March 2002, as Blair was preparing a visit to George Bush's Texas ranch.

New instructions were brought to the embassy by the prime minister's foreign affairs adviser, Sir David Manning.

The message from Downing Street was that the 11 September attacks and the subsequent US determination to oust Saddam were established facts, "and it was a complete waste of time … if we were going to work with the Americans, to come to them and bang away about regime change and say: 'We can't support it'."

He rejected the suggestion that British policy changed to stay in line with Washington. "I wouldn't say it was as extremely poodle-ish as that," Meyer said, arguing Blair had long been a "true believer about the wickedness of Saddam Hussein".

He conceded that the conditions Blair put on supporting regime change – action on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and going through the UN on Iraq – "were a bit feeble".

Meyer said there was a "sea change" in Washington's attitude to Iraq in the months after 11 September. In his briefing notes before the Texas summit, Meyer advised Blair to focus on how to garner international support for regime change, how to go about ousting Saddam, and what to do in the aftermath.

At the meeting, he said Bush and Blair spent "a large chunk of time" together with no advisers present. "To this day I'm not entirely clear what degree of convergence was, if you like, signed in blood at the Crawford ranch," he said, adding that Blair provided a clue in a speech the next day in which he mentioned "regime change" in Iraq for the first time.

"What he was trying to do was to draw the lessons of 9/11 and apply them to the situation in Iraq, which led – I think not inadvertently but deliberately – to a conflation of the threat posed by Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein."

Meyer said no one in the Bush administration appeared interested in talking about further containment of Saddam after the 2001 al-Qaida attacks on New York and Washington. In a telephone conversation him on the day of the attacks, the then US national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, said: "We are just looking to see whether there could possibly be a connection with Saddam Hussein."

Before the attacks, Meyer said the Bush administration was "losing steam" on a number of fronts and the Iraq issue was no more than "a grumbling appendix".

In the immediate aftermath, Washington agreed with Blair's advice to maintain "a laser-like focus" on Afghanistan. However, in the months that followed – spurred on by an anthrax attack that remains unsolved – the hawks advocating military action against Iraq grew stronger.

The inquiry was attacked today for limiting itself to the testimony of senior mandarins and not asking the views of lower-ranking civil servants who had argued there were alternatives to war.

Carne Ross, who was Britain's Iraq expert at the diplomatic mission to the UN and resigned over the decision to invade, said the committee was not being aggressive enough in questioning the decisions the Blair government took.

"It's like a fireside chat at a Pall Mall club," he said. "They're not digging below the surface. Why did the government not consider the alternatives? Were there meetings to consider the alternatives, or were the Brits just swept along with the Americans."

Ross took issue with Meyer's contention that the policy of containment and sanctions had "run its course" by 2002. "The mid-level people who spent all their time doing Iraq – our view was that sanctions had been effective in stopping Saddam rearming, and several of us believed a lot more could have been done to stop Iraq's illegal oil sales."


• © Guardian News and Media Limited 2009


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