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. After the vote, 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.
That no WMDs could be found after the invasion of Iraq has been known for several years, supporting the view of the Swedish diplomat Hans Blix, the United Nations chief weapons inspector at the time.
The timing of Blair’s admission is important. It can be explained by what recent witnesses have told the Iraq Inquiry and because Blair himself is due to go before the panel in the new year.
John Scarlett, formerly chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee and in charge of the British intelligence assessment, made clear that the Foreword to the report was ‘something which was the prime minister’s and it was going out under his signature’. Scarlett acknowledged that the 45-minute claim was about battlefield munitions rather than long-range missiles – a distinction lost in translation. But he said that greater emphasis had been placed on the 45-minute claim in the Prime Minister’s Foreword, which was ‘overtly political’.
Suma Chakrabarti, ex-permanent secretary at the department of international development, said that evidence of the situation in Iraq before the invasion was ‘scanty’.
David Manning, former foreign policy adviser to prime minister Blair, had this to say: ‘George W Bush raised the issue of Iraq with Tony Blair just three days after the 9/11 attacks, telling him during a phone conversation that Saddam Hussein may have links with al Qaeda’.
And Christopher Meyer, British ambassador to Washington (1997–2003): ‘Tony Blair’s view on regime change “tightened” after a private meeting with President Bush [in April 2002] … no officials were present at the Bush family ranch talks [in Texas], but the next day Mr Blair mentioned regime change for the first time … officials were left “scrambling” for evidence of WMDs as US troops prepared for invasion’.
Here is a summary of an article headlined ‘Lord Goldsmith warned Tony Blair over legality of the Iraq war’ in The Times of London on November 30, 2009: Goldsmith, then attorney general, sent a previously undisclosed letter [in July 2002] to Blair that a war could not be justified purely on the grounds of regime change and that an invasion on the grounds of self-defense or to prevent humanitarian disaster did not apply. Blair was reported to have concealed the advice from his cabinet, fearing it would spark an anti-war revolt. Goldsmith later reaffirmed that any action had to be “proportionate” and that “regime change” could not be the objective of military action. Goldsmith was then summoned to the Prime Minister’s Office and pressured, says the Times, into issuing a public statement on March 17, 2003 – three days before the start of the war – that an invasion would be legal. His warning letter is said to have been submitted to the inquiry.
Blair’s admission now has caused a political storm. Hans Blix said that Tony Blair used WMDs as a ‘convenient justification’ for war; a Conservative MP and member of the British Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee, Richard Ottoway, called Blair’s comments a ‘cynical ploy to soften up public opinion’ before his appearance at the Iraq Inquiry; former leader of Britain’s Liberal Democratic Party and a distinguished barrister, Menzies Campbell, said: “I have no doubt whatsoever that if Mr Blair had told his cabinet what he is now saying, he’d have found it very difficult to keep all of them … But the one place he would have undoubtedly failed would have been in the House of Commons.”
Carol Turner of the Stop the War Coalition described it as ‘extraordinary’ that Blair had admitted he was prepared to tailor his arguments to fit the circumstances. And Reg Keys, the father of a British soldier killed in Iraq, said he was ‘absolutely flabbergasted’.
Note: Tony Blair interview for broadcast on the BBC1 Sunday program, Fern Britton Meets … Tony Blair, December 13, 2009.
The above op-ed appeared at Juan Cole’s Informed Comment, 13 December 2009.