Blair & Iraq: Why Tony Blair Went to War - An Investigation
By Steve Richards
Why did Tony Blair lead the UK to war in Iraq in 2003 and how did he convince the House of Commons to support him? The questions are debated with a raging intensity more than a decade after the war began.
This is my unofficial inquiry, one that poses a wider range of questions to those explored by the mountain of official investigations and comes up with distinctive answers.
Why did Blair take the UK to war in Iraq? That is the wrong question. The puzzle we need to address is: why did Blair support the US administration in its desire to remove Saddam?
Blair was famous for his ‘big tent’ approach to political issues, building the biggest range of support possible before acting.
To find out why Britain went to war in Iraq we not only need to ask the right questions in relation to a decision to support the US, but we need to delve back into Labour’s recent past, the attitudes of the Conservative party towards foreign policy, the context in which Blair became leader, his approach to leadership, strategy and policy-making. No inquiry has done so.
The long inquiry into the Falklands War omitted to point out that Margaret Thatcher would have almost certainly been forced to resign if she had not taken military action.
Often what seems ‘brave’ in politics are closer to acts of desperation from leaders with no choice but to pursue a certain course if they want to survive in their posts.
If Thatcher had not gone to war she might have been one of the shortest-serving prime ministers of the twentieth century. She had no choice but to go to war. She was trapped and the outcome liberated her.
There were no easy paths in relation to Iraq or, to be more precise, to what a British prime minister should do as the US made its recklessly hawkish moves.
Should Blair support President Bush, who had decided that Saddam must be removed? His answer was determined by a sequence of events that began more than two decades earlier.
For leaders the future is a frightening unknown, but the past offers a guide.
For Tony Blair the distant voices of Chamberlain and Eden were in his ears as he moved towards Iraq. The closer voices of Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock, Tony Benn and Margaret Thatcher were much louder.
Let us begin our investigation in the spring of 1995. At this point Blair had been leader of his party for under a year.
As part of his pitch since winning the leadership contest he had proclaimed that Labour needed a new constitution, in effect to scrap Clause Four that theoretically committed his party to wide state ownership.
As they prepared a draft of the new constitution Mandelson noted that there was no significant phrase about defence policy. Mandelson was aware that defence had been a highly charged vote-loser for so-called old Labour.
In the new Clause Four of the party’s constitution there are few mentions of specific policy areas, but defence is included. Blair added the words: ‘Labour is committed to the defence and security of the British people.’ In doing so he tip-toed on to the long painful route that led towards Iraq.
The reason Blair and Mandelson gave defence policy any thought at all as they re-wrote the party’s constitution was because of what had happened in the 1980s and beyond, and not because of any new take on what was happening in the world.
Robin Cook, who became Blair’s first Foreign Secretary and who subsequently resigned from the cabinet over the war in Iraq, pinpoints Blair’s starting point towards the war a little earlier than the 1983 election.
Cook recalled Blair telling him that everywhere he went during that campaign voters were hailing Thatcher’s military victory.
In March 1987, weeks before that year’s general election Kinnock paid a visit to Washington. In a calculated snub, Reagan saw Kinnock for the minimum time protocol demanded.
In one briefing for Reagan, prepared by his senior officials in advance of Kinnock’s visit, the President was urged to stress: ‘Labour’s position on defence would make it difficult for any American administration to carry on as before.
The contrast at the time with Margaret Thatcher was striking.
Blair and Gordon Brown watched the media coverage of politics like hawks, in particular the reporting of Kinnock’s weaknesses and strengths. They drew a single conclusion from Kinnock’s visit to Washington and the inevitably exaggerated derisory coverage from the British media. A Labour leader is credible only when he or she has a close relationship with US presidents.
When Blair became leader, his office arranged for Blair to visit President Clinton in 1996. The trip worked beautifully, almost the reverse of Kinnock’s experience with Reagan.
The two had an obvious rapport. Blair seemed more ‘prime ministerial’ as a result of the successful trip. Evidently the so-called special relationship would be safe if he became Prime Minister.
Labour lost again in 1987. Thatcher won once more by a landslide.
When Blair became leader he was ‘new’ and resolved to avoid any echoes from hell in relation to defence policy and his dealing with the US.
In the 1992 election the Conservatives and their newspapers made endless references to the support for CND of Labour candidates.
There were many factors that contributed to Labour’s inability to win general elections. Perceptions of weakness in relation to defence appeared to be one of them.
Slightly more than two years later Tony Blair became leader of his party after the sudden death of John Smith.
The exhausted Conservative government was falling apart over Europe and by then the Labour party was desperate to win and would accept nearly any policy its new leader espoused.
His instinct was to regard whatever so-called Old Labour stood for as electorally dangerous.
Blair preferred a dynamic where his party felt challenged by his leadership, while previously Tory-supporting newspapers praised the new leader for courageously seeking a new direction for his party. This was Blair’s comfort zone.
In contemplating how to deal with President Bush’s desire to invade Iraq, Blair sought to move as close as possible to his familiar comfort zone, and not away from it.
Previous Labour leaders had been bold and lost. He accepted quite a lot of Thatcherite orthodoxy and won while being seen as bold. *
In the run-up to the 1997 election Blair was absolutely clear where he stood in relation to defence policy.
He was asked whether as Prime Minister he would be willing to press the nuclear button. He replied without hesitation: ‘Yes.’
The politics determined the mindset from the beginning. Where Labour was perceived to have been weak Blair would be strong. Labour had been anti-business. Blair was pro-business. Labour had been anti-American and soft on defence. Blair would be pro-American and strong on defence.
In one of the many Shakespearean twists en route to Iraq, Blair’s determination to stride away from Labour’s vote-losing history led him towards a war that would be more contentious and emotively damaging to his and his party’s reputation than any of old Labour’s perceived misdemeanours.
A crucial part of the explanation as to why Blair supported Bush in relation to Iraq is that he still assumed that at some point after the war he would lead a referendum in favour of the UK joining the euro. In such a referendum he wanted to make sure that there could be no credible attempt to attack him as anti-American and a lackey of France and Germany.
His friend President Clinton had issued several warnings to Saddam in Iraq about his refusal to comply with a series of UN resolutions. The warnings were accompanied by threats of military reprisal.
Every general assertion he had made about being tough on defence and a robust ally to the US pointed in one direction. If Clinton went to war against Saddam Blair’s repositioning of the Labour party and his own self-proclaimed role as a defiantly new type of Labour leader would make it almost impossible for the UK government to turn its back on the US.
There were three issues that were constant in Tony Blair’s premiership from the beginning to the end. The first was his relationship with Gordon Brown. The second was Britain’s relationship with Europe. More surprisingly the third was Iraq, and more specifically how the US was responding to Iraq, and what Blair felt he should do as a result.
President Clinton was the first leader to visit Number 10 after Labour’s 1997 landslide victory, a tribute to an already strong friendship with Blair and an early sign that the UK’s newly elected leader could almost out-Thatcher Thatcher in forming a bond with a US president.
This was the simple essence of Blair’s foreign policy, Britain stronger in Europe because of its special relationship with the US, the special relationship strong because Britain was at the heart of Europe.
At first Blair was far more preoccupied by the possibility of military action in Iraq. This is because he knew that President Clinton was contemplating the possibility of an attack. What would he do in such circumstances?
In February 1998 Blair paid his first visit to President Clinton as Prime Minister and was treated like a superstar. Three and a half years earlier he had been a relatively obscure shadow home secretary wondering if his party would ever win again. Now he was making waves as Prime Minister in the US as the President’s closest international ally.
Whatever his motives Clinton could not have been clearer in his introduction to the Washington press conference with Blair. Blair followed with a precise echo to Clinton’s opening comments. In tone and to some extent in substance he had begun his march towards the war in 2003.
Why was Blair so gripped by what was happening in Iraq rather than, say, Bosnia? He was gripped because President Clinton was gripped.
In the autumn of 1997 for a leader of Blair’s mindset every calculation pointed unambiguously towards supporting Clinton. They were similar calculations to the ones he was to make nearly six years later.
Representatives passed what was called the Iraq Liberation Act, with the stated purpose of removing Saddam Hussein from power and replacing his regime with a democratic government.
On 17 December US and British forces began a four-day bombing campaign against Iraqi command centres, airfields, weapons storage facilities and radar and missile sites. This was Blair’s first experience as a war leader
The military action was both pointless and a dark warning. Other EU countries were opposed. Blair was in favour.
After the air strikes in Iraq Blair’s attention was soon diverted to the Balkans. His Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, told him he was anticipating calls for military intervention from the Conservative leadership.
Blair was never going to give the Conservative leadership space again to become the party that called for military intervention while Labour leaders appeared to dither.
The subsequent liberation of Kosovo, brought about above all else by Blair’s hyper-activity, made a deep impression on him. He showed once more he could be a war leader. The Conservative leadership could do little more than express its admiration.
He achieved miracles during the Northern Ireland peace process. There was, though, one negative consequence from his heroism. He assumed he had such persuasive powers he would be able to achieve miracles in an even more impossible situation, persuading the UN to back President Bush in relation to Iraq.
Kosovo and Northern Ireland were distinctive achievements in Blair’s first term. Unlike much of the domestic programme Blair had acted largely as a solo performer.
Blair had discovered that he could take risks, persuade leaders to act in ways they had never acted before and acquired a deeply fulfilling sense of mission accomplished.
Labour won a second landslide in 2001. As far as Blair was concerned, his third-way foreign policy was still pivotal after the election of President Bush, strong in the US and strong in Europe.
At the height of the controversy over Iraq and his close relationship with Bush he told friends, ‘At least no one will be able to accuse me of being anti-American when we have the euro referendum.’ Blair’s hopes to end Britain’s ambiguous relationship with Europe, his self-declared historic mission, played an important part in relation to Iraq.
He was not remotely agitated at any point when attacked for being Bush’s poodle.
If he had been Clinton’s closest ally for the ill thought-through bombing of Iraq in his first term he would most emphatically be Bush’s firmest friend in the light of an unambiguous tragedy, a terrorist attack without precedent on the US.
The adulation that greeted Blair when he visited New York and Washington later that month became a trap.
A decade earlier he had been an obscure frontbencher belonging to a party seemingly doomed to eternal opposition. Now he was the Prime Minister receiving standing ovations in Congress.
After Bush had delivered his Axis of Evil speech Blair knew he faced the biggest challenge of his career. One way or another Bush would seek to remove Saddam, and Blair could either back him or oppose him or seek a third way.
There was no question from Blair’s point of view that he would remain Bush’s closest ally.
He could only breathe politically in a comfort zone where he was as close to a US president as Thatcher had been and where there was no space for a Conservative leader of the Opposition to make hay.
As a political leader Blair could not imagine opposing President Bush. Indeed it takes quite a leap to contemplate the alternative scenario. He would be horrified at the idea of Iain Duncan Smith being given the space to become Bush’s ally while he moved closer to the position of previous vote-losing Labour leaders.
He would lose the support of Murdoch and that would be long before he planned his referendum on the euro, still his historic objective, the policy that would place him in the history books.
He had no doubts that for him he must support Bush. But how could he persuade his party?
He was aware that the so-called hard left would be opposed and was not remotely bothered by that prospect. He knew the Conservative leadership would back him, an extremely important element in the equation.
Blair faced a nightmarish decision in early 2002. If he had declared his opposition to Bush at this early stage Labour’s ‘Atlanticist’ wing would have despaired. Mighty newspapers would have turned away. The Tory leadership would have been given a distinct position.
Later, angry voters would ask in TV studios why Blair ignored the biggest demonstration since 1945 against UK military action
The answer is that by then he was trapped.
There was no way a leader of Blair’s character was going to turn away from Bush and he had resolved not to do so.
But he could not act with a majority in his party against him and he knew voters would be wary at first at any moves towards war in Iraq, not least Labour voters. In advance of his key meeting with Bush in Crawford in March 2002, Blair came up with a characteristic route forward.
He calculated rightly that most of his party, including the likes of Robin Cook, would support military action if authorized by the UN.
Above all Blair needed to time to build up support for dealing with Saddam. If Bush acted quickly he would not have the time he needed.
The Crawford Summit in March 2002 has been the subject of endless speculation.
After their private discussions Bush announced he would take the UN route when before it appeared that he was ready to act unilaterally - a significant shift from Bush, annoying his Vice-President Dick Cheney and his Defense Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld.
Blair secured this change of approach from Bush by making clear he would be constant as an ally, taking part in military action with the US if the UN route failed to deliver their joint objective, the removal of Saddam.
After their private conversations the two leaders held a brief press conference in Crawford. Blair stated revealingly: ‘This is an opportunity for the UN to rise to its responsibilities and not to evade those responsibilities.’
In effect Blair declared publicly in Crawford that Bush was putting an overwhelmingly powerful case to the UN when he might not have bothered, and the UN should behave responsibly by supporting him.
It meant that for both leaders the route to war would focus on the alleged WMD that Saddam was supposed to possess. The UN might support the removal of weapons. It would never sanction the removal of a leader.
Blair had stopped an act of illegal unilateralism from a US president. But in doing so became dependent on an argument about the need to remove Saddam’s WMD.
Blair’s support became possible because Bush agreed to go to the UN and that support was not dependent on backing from the UN. Blair was so focused on getting Bush to a place that could make his support more feasible he spent no time reflecting on the case against war.
After the Crawford Summit Blair became a prisoner who had bought himself some time. He desperately needed the time to build up a case for action against Saddam. *
He had no choice but to become an advocate, advancing a one-sided case in the build-up to war. He had voters, the media and parliamentary colleagues to persuade.
September was the most important month in the build-up to war, when the act of persuasion began in earnest, with his monthly press conference dominated by the issue and when he published the dossier on Saddam’s alleged possession of WMD.
Reading the dossier subsequently is a darkly comic experience. Every single item of intelligence, presented without qualification, proved to be wrong.
There was one very big pertinent question arising from the dossier. Why was the intelligence so wrong?
The question was rarely posed. Instead, soon * after the war the questions focused on Blair’s integrity. Why did he lie? The answer is that he did not lie. He placed a preposterously excessive weight on intelligence that was obviously unreliable. He did so because it had become his only route to war in which he might be able to retain his big tent of support.
He had promised Bush he would stand shoulder to shoulder with the US and he was using every weapon available to him to make that pledge one that commanded wide support.
It was only later that Blair’s big political tent deserted him. As he made his moves towards war Blair had the admiring support of most newspapers, the leader of the Conservative party and nearly all Conservative MPs; Rupert Murdoch, all but one or two of his cabinet, and the former Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown.
The voters were proving more of a problem. Blair’s persuasive arts had not convinced the majority of voters.
He would have been in a terrible state if the Tory leadership, the newspapers and Gordon Brown were all united in opposition to him. But they were supportive.
For a short time early in 2003 Blair focused exclusively on getting a second UN resolution authorizing war. His attempt was doomed from the beginning.
The Northern Ireland peace process and Kosovo had given him a confidence in his persuasive powers that was partly justified, but in relation to Iraq he was entering another league of challenges.
But by then Blair was trapped. He had no choice but to try to secure UN backing for war.
The scale of the trap was laid bare with the passing of UN Resolution 1441, an apparent triumph for the UK that was in fact a deadly defeat.
If the resolution had stated clearly that one consequence was international military action, it would not have been passed.
Bhe resolution did not amount to very much at all. It would take a second resolution to trigger UN authorized war, but on the basis of the struggle to agree the vague 1441 resolution this was not going to happen.
A month later, on 17 March, when Britain finally gave up its quest for a second resolution, nothing had changed.
Bush did give Blair the option of pulling out of the planned military action.
It would have ended for ever his alliance with Rupert Murdoch and with those voters who saw him as different type of Labour prime minister, one who was strong on defence.
For Blair it was not an option he could contemplate for a nanosecond, because to pull out in such a humiliating way would have destroyed the coalition of support that he cared about most .
But what about the voters? He was surprised by the size of the demonstration against the war.
In response to the astonishing images of the march, Blair declared he did not ‘seek unpopularity as a badge of honour but sometimes it is the price of leadership and the cost of conviction’. These are the most important words Blair uttered in the entire Iraq saga. He had apparently metamorphosed into a leader who was guided by evangelical belief irrespective of popularity.
What had happened to bring about such a change? The answer is that Blair had no choice by then but to be defiant. He had not changed in any way at all.
There was no way he could at this late stage back down without looking pathetically weak, the leader who gave up when the going got tough. He was trapped. The only escape route was the one he chose, to play the leader who would defy popular protest out of conviction. This became his persona for the rest of his leadership.
Once Saddam had fallen Blair had assumed that at worst he would not be too badly damaged and, at best, he would get a ‘Baghdad Bounce’ to compare with Margaret Thatcher’s ‘Falklands Factor’, a factor that made her electorally invincible.
The turnaround was confirmed on 29 April, soon after Saddam had fallen. The Financial Times reported: ‘As the prime minister turns his attention to domestic matters, he will be pleased to receive news that the Baghdad “Bounce” is working well for him * .
Once again Blair had navigated the safest political course. There was never any doubt that the US would remove Saddam.
Blair convinced himself he was pursuing the right policy, or one that could be justified. He knew he could not stop Bush from invading Iraq, so the war would have happened.
As he had assumed, the war was popular very quickly. He also assumed that once Saddam had been toppled he could move on from Iraq, from putting the one-sided case for war. On this he could not have been more wrong.
Iraq tormented Blair for the rest of his period in Number 10.
As a result Blair acts out the ultimate Shakespearean irony: the leader who regarded the need for popular consensus almost as a political philosophy becomes an exile from his own country. He could not event attend launches of his memoir for fear of violent demonstrations. The leader of UK’s bulging big tent found he had no choice but to camp elsewhere.