What did Blair promise Bush?
Of all the questions the Chilcot report must answer, perhaps the most eagerly awaited and politically sensitive is what exactly Tony Blair promised George Bush– behind the backs of his cabinet, parliament, and the public – about Britain joining the US-led invasion of Iraq.
Notes of the then prime minister’s conversations with the president at the time – including those at Bush’s Texas ranch in Crawford in April 2002 – were the subject of heated and prolonged arguments between Sir John Chilcot and successive cabinet secretaries, Sir Gus (now Lord) O’Donnell, and Sir Jeremy Heywood.
Chilcot announced two years ago that he agreed that “the gist” of more than 100 records of conversations between Blair and Bush in the run-up to the invasion, and of 200 cabinet discussions, would be published, but not the documents themselves.
He described the content of the documents as “vital to the public understanding of the inquiry’s conclusions”. Chilcot told O’Donnell in 2011: “The material requested provides important, and often unique, insights into Mr Blair’s thinking and the commitments he made to President Bush, which are not reflected in other papers.”
Chilcot added: “The question when and how the prime minister made commitments to the US about the UK’s involvement in military action in Iraq and subsequent decisions on the UK’s continuing involvement, is central to its considerations.”
A clear indication that Blair promised Bush that Britain would join the invasion whatever the UN weapons inspectors reported, and whatever the state of negotiations in the UN, emerged in 2006, in a leaked memo of a private two-hour meeting between Blair and Bush in the White House on 31 January 2003, nearly two months before the invasion.
“Our diplomatic strategy had to be arranged around the military planning,” David Manning, Blair’s chief foreign policy adviser at the time, wrote in a telling memo summarising the discussion between Bush, Blair and six top aides. The start date for the military campaign was now penciled in for 10 March,” Manning wrote, paraphrasing Bush. “This was when the bombing would begin.”
Alastair Campbell, Blair’s spokesman, described the tenor of Blair’s notes to Bush during his appearance at the Chilcot inquiry in January 2012: “We share the analysis, we share the concern, we are absolutely with you in making sure that Saddam Hussein is faced up to his obligations and that Iraq is disarmed. If that can’t be done diplomatically and it has to be done militarily, Britain will be there.”
Did the invasion increase the risk of terrorist attacks in Britain?
Eliza Manningham-Buller, head of MI5 at the time, said the invasion increased the threat of terrorist attacks on the UK “substantially”. Whitehall’s joint intelligence committee (JIC) repeatedly warned that the invasion had radicalised British Muslims. Sir David Omand, Blair’s former senior security and intelligence adviser, echoed these concerns.
Sir Mark Allen, head of counter-terrorism in MI6 at the time, warned Downing Street as early as December 2001 that an attack on Iraq would “reinforce” terrorists’ motives and grievances. “The bombings will be seen as an attack on ordinary Arabs, rather than Saddam,” Allen warned then.
Blair has repeatedly dismissed suggestions his foreign policy increased the terror threat.
Was the invasion unlawful?
The Chilcot panel did not include a lawyer, and the report is unlikely to take a position on whether the invasion was lawful or not – indeed this is outside the inquiry’s official terms of reference.
However, the inquiry may comment on whether political pressure was placed on the attorney general, Lord Goldsmith, and others to declare the invasion lawful.
Goldsmith changed his mind, and in the end – after a visit to Washington – advised Blair that an invasion of Iraq would be lawful after all. The Foreign Office’s two most senior legal advisers said an invasion would be illegal under international law. Jack Straw, the foreign secretary, dismissed their advice.
A worried Admiral Mike Boyce, chief of the defence staff, demanded an “unequivocal” assurance that an invasion was legal. The advice came from Downing Street, responding to a note from Goldsmith’s office. There is a widespread view among lawyers that the Blair government could be in breach of the Geneva conventions, which impose a duty on occupying powers to protect the civilian population.
Did MI6 officers, notably its chief, Sir Richard Dearlove, knowingly distort intelligence about Saddam Hussein’s weapons programme?
Much is known already about the “dodgy dossiers”. Omand told the inquiry MI6 “overpromised and under-delivered”. A senior, unidentified MI6 officer told the inquiry: “I absolutely agreed with that judgment. It’s precisely what we did.”
One senior MI6 officer told the inquiry he thought his agency was “guilty of flying a bit too close to the sun. I think a fair criticism would be that we were probably too eager to please.”
The question is whether Chilcot places the blame squarely on Blair, or whether Dearlove should share a large part of it.
How seriously did Straw warn Blair about the legality and consequences of an invasion?
Straw told the inquiry in January 2010 that regime change would not be a lawful objective of an invasion, even though the inquiry heard that was clearly a war aim. He dismissed the advice of his top law officers, and was responsible, with the international development secretary, Clare Short, and military commanders, for ensuring that Basra and south-eastern Iraq would be stable. Instead, the Shia insurgency increased.
Straw is believed to have been handed 300 pages of Chilcot draft report passages in which he was criticised. The FCO set up a special unit to help him respond.
Who is to be blamed more for the failures and fatalities following the invasion?
A key question is whether Chilcot will criticise Blair, Straw, Geoff Hoon, the defence secretary, and Gordon Brown, then chancellor, for not properly preparing for, and funding, the invasion and its aftermath – and for not keeping MPs informed – and how much he will criticise military commanders and senior Whitehall officials for not standing up robustly enough to their political masters – in other words, failing to “speak truth to power”.
Sources familiar with the inquiry say Chilcot will scatter the blame, criticising ministers, senior civil servants, and the military.