Forgetting Allies: Writing the British Out of the History of the Iraq War
Michael J. Mazarr, Leap of Faith: Hubris, Negligence, and America’s Greatest Foreign Policy Tragedy (PublicAffairs, 2019)
Brits have long joked that when Hollywood gets its hands on any World War II story in which they played a predominant role, all the movie’s heroic parts and best lines go to Americans. In the case of the 2003 Iraq War, which now has such terrible associations, it might be thought wise to concede bragging rights to the United States, in which case Michael Mazarr’s book might come as some relief. He systematically plays down the British role in the military and diplomatic preparations for the war, the campaign itself, and its aftermath. Unfortunately, some of what he does say about Britain’s part in this conflict is misleading. The issues I will be addressing are not at the heart of Mazarr’s analysis of American decision-making and critique of the war, which appear to be thorough, and which I leave to others to judge. My rather narrow focus may therefore seem unfair, but it does include some important aspects of the diplomacy of 2002 and 2003.
I was a member of the U.K. Iraq Inquiry (sometimes known as the Chilcot Inquiry after its chairman, Sir John Chilcot) that was appointed in the summer of 2009 and reported almost exactly seven years later in July 2016. The report was some 2.5 million words in length, setting out in detail U.K. decision-making from 2001 to 2009 and examining key issues surrounding Britain’s participation in the war itself and the subsequent attempts to bring some stability to Iraq. By and large the report was well-received and there has been no serious challenge to its findings. Those looking in detail at the Iraq experience now use the report itself, the transcripts of its hearings, and the many documents declassified for the Inquiry as a trove of material for their own research. Mazarr is aware of the report because he occasionally refers to material on its website, including transcripts of the hearings, although he does not engage directly with the report itself. He finds fascinating “the release of hundreds of documents from this period” without mentioning their provenance. For British commentary he tends to rely on memoirs published before the report, such as those by Christopher Meyer and Robin Cook.
A minor illustration of the problem comes on the third page when Mazarr opens with an account of a key meeting at Camp David, failing to mention Prime Minister Tony Blair was present. He observes that seven months later, “US tanks would be streaming across the Kuwaiti border, headed for the Iraqi capital of Baghdad.” Three hundred and forty-three pages later, he writes, “Beginning on March 20, 2003, thousands of US military personnel swarmed across Iraq’s border with Kuwait, rushing towards Baghdad.” Call me picky, but it seems odd to suggest that the Americans were on their own. As described in the eighth section of our inquiry, the United Kingdom provided half the coalition’s air assault capability and a large portion (in immediate pre-war assessments, it was put at some 30 percent) of the tanks that crossed the border in the first days of the war. The U.K. 7th Armoured Division was tasked with holding southern Iraq and screening American forces as they went forward. In addition, in one of the first major actions, the Al-Faw peninsula was seized by the United Kingdom’s 3 Commando Brigade.
More seriously, Mazarr sees great significance in some documents from early December 2001. Some are from a leading British intelligence figure who provided a couple of memos as “stimulants to thought.” The papers explained why Iraqi weapons of mass destruction were of concern and why getting rid of Saddam might be helpful, but were in key respects quite nuanced, pointing to how the outcome of a bombing campaign would be “uncertain and hard to control,” the negatives of installing a U.S.-backed regime in Baghdad, the vital importance of international cohesion in the fight against terrorism, and issues of legality. The provenance of these documents is described in the third section of our inquiry. At most they were read and then forgotten but they had little discernible impact on what followed. Mazarr then refers to “another British memo” dated Dec. 4, 2001, entitled “The War Against Terrorism – the Second Phase.” He describes this as “laying out a mechanism for tricking western publics into war” as if he has hit upon some high-level plot. Unfortunately, he has not realized that this was written by Blair for U.S. President George W. Bush. Once you understand that this was not the British talking to themselves but Blair trying to influence Bush, it looks quite different: The prime minister is trying to persuade the president that while his objective might be justified, he really has to be careful and clever in its pursuit and not rush into immediate action, which was the British fear at the time.
Here is another example: Mazarr refers to the British dossier produced on Sept. 24, 2002, which purported to provide convincing evidence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, as the “dodgy dossier.” Actually that was a different document, produced in February 2003 to support the contention Colin Powell would make shortly thereafter in a notorious speech to the United Nations, that the Iraqis were going out of their way to prevent the inspectors from doing their job. Unlike the September 2002 dossier, which was only found wanting when it became apparent that there were no weapons of mass destruction to be found, this one was called out almost straightaway when it was pointed out that a chunk had been plagiarized from published articles. This is why it was described at once as “dodgy.”
The most serious issues are connected with Mazarr’s treatment of the diplomacy surrounding the war. He does refer to the Blair-Bush summit at Crawford, Texas, in April 2002. This was the moment when Blair signed up to Bush’s objective of getting rid of Saddam Hussein. He discusses the question of what, if any, conditions Blair set on his support, although without any reference to the extensive discussion of the matter in the Iraq Inquiry, which can be found in the third section of our report. The ambiguity on the status of those conditions goes to the heart of Blair’s strategy. He saw himself as Bush’s strategic adviser. By showing he was on his side, Blair could then advise on how to make it more likely that their shared objectives would be met. This was a quite different approach to the one his advisers would have preferred, to making support conditional on this advice being followed.
Nonetheless, one of his proposals was central, which was to go through the United Nations. Mazarr is unclear on the reasons for this so it might be helpful to clarify. The American legal view was the combination of U.S. resolutions 678 (the one that authorized all necessary means against Iraq in November 1990) and 687 (the ceasefire resolution of April 1991) allowed the allies to resume hostilities so long as Saddam continued to be in violation of these and subsequent resolutions. The British view was that the passage of time required the original resolution to be “revived” by another U.N. resolution. As this was the position taken by both the British attorney general and the Foreign Office lawyers, Blair had little choice but to urge this route on Bush, especially as it was demanded for political reasons by the Cabinet and the Parliamentary Labour Party.
The second reason, which Mazarr notes, was tactical: Blair’s view was the United Nations could be a trap for Saddam. The Iraqi leader was refusing to let inspectors back in to continue their work in Iraq. If he continued to refuse despite the passage of yet another Security Council resolution calling on him to cooperate, then that could constitute a casus belli. Alternatively, if he did let them in, on the assumption that he was hiding weapons of mass destruction, a casus belli could be found either in continuing noncooperation or else cooperation leading to their discovery. The flaw in this argument is now glaring, and it turned into a trap for Blair, but I always found it as striking evidence of just how much the weapons of mass destruction assessments were believed.
Because from the British side this was essential Blair used up most of his political capital to get Bush to work with the United Nations. This is an important part of the story of the summer of 2002, and an important aspect of the Camp David meeting of Sept. 7 which led to Bush’s speech to the U.N. General Assembly two weeks later. Mazarr describes the Cabinet that took place later that September (Sept. 23), the day before the dossier is released as one in which Blair demonstrated his “obvious determination to press toward war.” Only Robin Cook and Clare Short, he noted, resisted. Yet the record of the Cabinet meeting has Blair saying “We were not at the point of authorising military action now.” The big news at the time was less the dossier than Bush’s endorsing a new Security Council resolution as the next step in the confrontation with Saddam, and Iraq’s acceptance of inspectors. This was all viewed positively by Cabinet, and something of a triumph for the prime minister. Now, the hope was that military action might be delayed. If it occurred, it would at least have legal authority.
Cook and Short were always wary, but if he is talking about resistance, Mazarr appears to have the wrong Cabinet meeting. Cook, as a former foreign secretary who had recently held the Iraq portfolio, pushed continuously for the matter to be handled through the United Nations. He resigned almost six months after this meeting, just before the Cabinet of March 17, and only when it became apparent that Blair would be going ahead without the authority of a new Security Council resolution. Short dithered and resigned weeks later, for reasons more to do with the handling of the aftermath.
On the subsequent progress of the diplomacy we have a passage from Mazarr which is at best confusing:
In the first week of November, the United States presented a third Security Council resolution, one that loosened some of the earlier demands and threatened Iraq with the vague prospect of “serious consequences” for misbehavior. France and others quickly agreed to it, and it became Resolution 1441, passed fifteen to zero by the Security Council.
Each side in the debate at the UN wilfully interpreted the wording of the resolution to suit their own purposes. Other members of the Council thought they had restrained the Bush Administration by forcing changes in the language. Looked at in the harsh light of retrospect, this was clearly wishful thinking.
I presume by “third Security Council resolution” he means the third draft of the same resolution (1441). The first draft was submitted by the United States and the United Kingdom (not just the United States) on Sept. 25, 2002. So this third draft, also submitted by both the United Kingdom and United States, came after six weeks of intense diplomatic negotiations. There was nothing “quickly agreed to.”
Resolution 1441 had two purposes. The first was not contentious and that is why it was passed: to put new pressure on Saddam by requiring far more stringent inspections than he had hitherto been prepared to accept. The second was to work out what to do with further evidence of noncompliance. That a further “material breach” could lead to “severe consequences” was not a big issue although the United States would have preferred a reference to “necessary means.” Everyone knew what was at stake. The big issue was that the Americans did not intend to return to the Security Council for further authorization should they conclude that the moment for severe consequences had come. Other members of the Security Council wanted to reserve their position on authorizing force until they had a chance to review reports from the inspectors. Eventually, Washington agreed to compromise language which would require the Security Council to “consider” reports of a breach rather than “decide” if a breach existed. This was in the final draft adopted by unanimous vote on Nov. 8. As this was a hard compromise, the problems with this resolution did not just become evident in retrospect. They were at the heart of the debate.
Initial British legal advice was closer to the French view that the distinction between “considering” and “deciding” made little difference, and so a further Security Council resolution would be required. This was why Blair wanted the Security Council to endorse military action with a second resolution. Mazarr mentions the second resolution first when referring to the French foreign minister’s explicit opposition to any use of force on Jan. 20 and says this was when France “essentially abandoned support for a second resolution.” Confusingly, he then says Bush still endorsed “one last effort to secure a second resolution” a week and a half later.
This is muddled. There had been no attempt at all to get a second resolution before this point. Blair wanted one but he was only given real encouragement after Hans Blix reported negatively on Iraqi cooperation to the United Nations on Jan. 27. Blair raised it with Bush when the two met at the end of January. He obtained Bush’s reluctant support in return for signing up to military action by mid-March, which gave Blair precious little diplomatic time and assumed that Blix would continue to report noncooperation, which he didn’t. In the event, the United Kingdom devoted precious hours of diplomatic energy to the attempt to get support for such a resolution, failing because the inspectors had not come up with anything to justify one. Mazarr quotes the French president’s threat in the second week of March that he would veto any second resolution, but does not report how this was seized upon by Bush and Blair to blame France for their own failure to muster support. Lord Goldsmith, the British attorney general, eventually gave Blair legal cover by changing his earlier position and accepting the American view that a second resolution, while desirable, was not essential.
Now, it might be considered salutary for Brits to be reminded that they really don’t count for much in Washington calculations even when they are committing substantial forces to a military operation and accepting a role as a “joint occupying power” after an invasion. (This is another matter where the British role is totally ignored). But Bush did meet regularly with Blair and the two spoke often on the phone. Arguably Britain used up its capital on the U.N. process. Blair thought he had got a belated concession on the “roadmap” for the Middle East, showing how progress could be made on the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. He did not push his government’s other major area of concern — the management of the aftermath — on which Britain’s own operations turned out to be as dire as those of the United States. Blair’s support was, however, important in Washington and was something Bush appreciated.
Mazarr’s index shows Ahmad Chalabi warranting far more references than Blair or any other P5 leader. Vladimir Putin doesn’t even appear. German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder gets one passing mention as does Jacques Chirac, although Chirac’s foreign minister Dominique de Villepin warrants a couple. This is not the first example I have come across of American writing about foreign policy paying little attention to foreigners when the internal power struggles are so much more riveting. Perhaps the lesson to draw is that the views of allies are easily ignored in Washington, and this was the case even in those pre-Trump days, but it is a shame that this indifference to allies and their views is shared even by those claiming to be holding the Bush administration to account and providing a definitive account of the march to war.
Lawrence Freedman is Emeritus Professor of War Studies at King’s College London and a former member of the U.K. Iraq Inquiry. His most recent book is Ukraine and the Art of Strategy (OUP: 2019).