Chilcot: Devil in the details
So the Chilcot report has confirmed to all of us what we all knew anyway: that Tony Blair took the UK into the US-led war in Iraq on false pretenses.
Ok, so he did not “lie” to the British public, but surely the point is that because the flawed intelligence suited what he wanted, he misused it to get what he wanted by over-exaggerating a threat to the UK and frightening us all into supporting the invasion.
Publishing intelligence in this way was unprecedented and it was hijacked by the New Labour spin machine as the way of securing a policy objective – the unconditional support of the US.
Yesterday, Blair admitted he made mistakes with the way he handled processes and quickly went on to cover whether his decision was right or not. But the ‘right or wrong’ argument is where he is on safe ground as it is framed as a matter of opinion so he can argue that until the cows come home – which he practically did in his two hour long press conference.
But it is in the detail of these processes that he glossed over where Blair was manipulative, over-rode protocols and applied pressure to secure the decision he wanted.
Blair was supported by the majority of MPs at Westminster. At the time I worked in the House of Commons for two backbench Labour MPs – one for the war and one against and I had to write arguments supporting both sides of the argument.
Here, a key point was that what those against intervention were saying was that a war would be illegal without a further UN Security Council Resolution. So it was the advice of the Attorney General who stated that an invasion would be legal and a second UN Resolution to back up UNSCR 1441 was not required, which gave MPs the assurance they needed to support their Prime Minister.
Don’t forget that Tony Blair was still at his peak year in the years 2001-03. He had just secured a second landslide electoral victory and politicians in general and the office of Prime Minister were still viewed with some respect and authority compared to what they are now. The Labour Party had such a large majority in Parliament at the time with the opposition reduced to a rump that it was therefore up to these backbench MPs to decide whether to give Blair the Parliamentary approval he wanted.
Another aspect is that more and more MPs are ex-lawyers so the legal aspect was a vital sticking point. Furthermore, MPs usually don’t like to vote against their leadership – especially a successful one – therefore they were looking for any reason they could find to be able to support him.
The Attorney General’s advice was important here, therefore it is important to go back to early 2003 before the vote in Parliament to the part of the Chilcot report that looks at legal wrangling.
The report shows the difference in Lord Goldsmith’s initial advice on 14 January 2003. The report says he “saw no grounds for self-defence or humanitarian intervention providing the legal basis for military action in Iraq” and that Goldsmith wrote it was “clear that resolution 1441” contained “no express authorisation by the Security Council for the use of force”.
But the Chilcot report then tells us that Tony Blair did not tell his Cabinet he had received this draft advice when they met two days later and decided not to invite Goldsmith as originally planned. On 30 January, Goldsmith wrote to Blair again in advance of the latter’s meeting with President Bush to re-emphasis this initial advice – he was told it was not asked for and Blair wrote that he ‘did not understand’ the Attorney General’s conclusion.
Despite significant lobbying from the UK’s representative at the UN, Sir Jeremy Greenstock, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and British Ambassador to the US, Sir David Manning, as well as a visit to the US, on 27 February Goldsmith insisted that a second resolution was needed.
However, he added for the first time that there was a “reasonable case” that UNSCR 1441 could be used to authorise the use of force, but to do this the UK had to show that a second resolution was not legally required. It looks like the message was finally getting through.
Then on 7 March 2003 in his formal advice to Tony Blair and the government, he said that although self-defence and humanitarian interests did not justify intervention, UNSCR 1441 did actually allow for the revival of the earlier 678 resolution agreed in 1990 that gave authority for military force.
Although some ministers saw this advice it was not put to Cabinet.
At this time the second resolution was sought by the UK, but despite frenetic activity and effort, French President Jacques Chirac said on 10 March he would veto any resolution that would lead to war. This halted diplomatic efforts at the UN, but the legal advice at this point, despite not being made public, was that it was not needed.
Blair met with Goldsmith on 11 March but no record of what was said was taken.
A couple of days later on 13 March, Goldsmith concluded that he thought there was a legal basis for intervention without a further resolution. This was in advance of Parliament and others calling for clarification on whether a “reasonable case” meant intervention was lawful or not.
The Chilcot report says that Goldsmith came to this decision after he was “greatly assisted by the background material he had seen on the history of the negotiation of resolution 1441 and his discussions with both Sir Jeremy Greenstock and the US lawyers …”
So when pushed and pushed for a clearer decision from all angles, Goldsmith had to come down on one side or another and eventually folded to the pressure, although without any additional legal arguments. The report says that after this was confirmed, following meetings that day, a team was put together to reinforce and explain this decision “as strongly and unambiguously as possible”.
He put out his position on 17 March in a written answer to Parliament the day before Parliament was due to vote. It was only then that Goldsmith attended the Cabinet meeting that approved the ultimatum to Saddam Hussein and to ask the House of Commons to approve military action, where he presented this answer and was finally available for cross examination by Cabinet members. However there is conflicting testimony from those present about to what extent questions were allowed or a debate on legality to take place to any extent.
It was at this point that former Foreign Secretary and Leader of the House, Robin Cook resigned from Cabinet, although he was not in that meeting.
In Parliament the following day, a motion calling for the government to wait for UN approval was defeated. Eventually one quarter of Labour MPs and Liberal Democrats voted against the government’s motion but it passed 412 to 149. War was at hand.
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