Blair, Chilcot, Iraq Inquiry and International Community

Jason Ralph

There have been a few mentions of the Iraq Inquiry on the blogs (also here) I regularly visit, but I’ve been holding back contributing in part because I’ve been hurriedly writing the paper that I presented yesterday at the UK Foreign Office.  The event was organised by the BISA British Foreign Policy Working Group and I’d like to thank Oliver Daddow and Jamie Gaskarth for their invitation.  Unfortunately, the presentation and panel had to be cut short because of a mix up with the room booking, so I’ve decided to post below the remarks that I used  for my presentation.  The title of my paper is “The doctrine of international community and the UK decision to invade Iraq” and it draws on some of the evidence from the ongoing Iraq Inquiry. 

The purpose of the paper is to try to explain, and then to assess, the UK’s decision to go to war against Iraq in the context of Tony Blair’s doctrine of international community, which he first set out in his Chicago speech of April 1999.  I argue that UK diplomacy in the lead up to war cannot be properly understood without reference to the idea of international community, but that ultimately the decision to go to war without the support of the UN Security Council was a betrayal of that idea.

Now, there are some nuances to my normative argument in that paper, but it worth starting by saying something about Blair’s conception of international community, how it may have been flawed from the outset and how it contributed to the Iraq decision.

As I said, Blair set out his vision at the height of the Kosovo crisis, but he also came back to it in his Labour Party conference speech just shortly after 9/11.  What’s interesting I think about these speeches is a sense in which Blair is trying to convince us that foreign policy is about ‘values’ as well as ‘interests’; and in that respect he is attacking the classical realist critique of international society.  But he says very little about what might be called the critical realist question, which is “who speaks for international society?”

Now, this is something Andrew Linklater noted (in Schnabel and Thakur)when commenting on the five tests for military action, which were of course suggested to Blair by Sir Lawrence Freedman.  Those five tests were: are we sure of our case, have we exhausted all options, is the proposed action workable, are we committed to the region for the long term, are national interests involved?  What Linklater says is missing from this list is the question, “are others certain of our case, competence and motives?”  This has to be answered in the affirmative before a state can rightfully claim to act on behalf of international society; and my argument is that Blair gave insufficient weight to this sixth criteria when deciding to support the US invasion or Iraq. 

The evidence that some conception of international society influenced UK policy is I think fairly strong.  So for instance, it’s obvious that as much as UK policymakers wanted to see decisive action on Iraq, they did not want to see unilateral American action.  So for instance Jonathan Powell told the Iraq Inquiry that

‘[w]e believed unilateral action would have been a terrible thing by America, and we wanted to try and put it in a much wider political context.  That’s what we went to Crawford [in April 2002] to try to do and what we tried to do subsequently during that year’. 

Further evidence is that for Blair the invasion had to be legal under international law.  So, when the Attorney General told him in July 2002 that Resolution 1205 would not be enough to revive the authority granted in Resolution 678 – which had been the claim in 1998 – Blair knew he would have to persuade the US and the UN to get another resolution.

Now, one of the central claims of my paper is that Blair’s main objective was to reconcile the US and the UN positions and for this Blair pursued a two-track approach, both of which he kept open throughout 2002.  The first track is perhaps the most commonly understood position, and that was the attempt to convince the Security Council to authorize force to disarm Saddam.  From this perspective regime change was necessary for proper disarmament.  The second track was that Blair would try to persuade Bush that it was sufficient to disarm Iraq without war or regime change.  From this perspective disarmament was in effect a change in the character of the regime.        

 Now, I for one didn’t give much weight to this second track until the Iraq Inquiry evidence, in particular that given by Sir David Manning who notes that on several occasions Bush said he could disarmament with Saddam in power.  To quote Manning,

the President said that ‘if by any chance Saddam accepted and implemented the terms of a new resolution, we would have succeeded in changing the very nature of the regime, and in a colourful phrase, which has stayed with me, he said: “We would have cratered the guy.  … and it was a view that was on several occasions conceded by Dr Rice and, indeed, by the President, that if Saddam Hussein accepted the provisions of, as it turned out to be, UN Security Council Resolution 1441, the situation on the ground in Iraq would be so profoundly different that the regime would have changed itself, and, therefore, the threat posed by Iraq to the international community would have been dramatically transformed …

It is likely that Manning and Blair were being overly optimistic about their ability to persuade Bush to accept disarmament as a form of regime change, particularly when we read the Cabinet Office paper of July 2002, which states with some assurance that the American will go to war in January 2003.  That reality left the first track the most likely way of achieving their objective, which to repeat was to reconcile US policy with an understanding of international community.

Now, what’s interesting about the evidence from the Iraq Inquiry is that Blair had speculated at the September 2002 meeting with Bush at Camp David that two UN resolutions would be needed, one to set the conditions and one to decide what action to take.  Again the July 2002 Cabinet Office paper is interesting in this regard because it suggests the US decision to go to war had been taken and this would affect the attempt to construct a legal basis.  It states that it may just be

‘possible that an ultimatum could be cast in terms which Saddam would reject (because he is unwilling to accept unfettered access) and which would not be regarded as unreasonable by the international community. However, failing that (or an Iraqi attack) we would be most unlikely to achieve a legal base for military action by January 2003.’

I suggest in the paper that this pressing timetable may have had something to do with Sir Jeremy Greenstock’s attempt to in effect roll the two resolutions into 1441.  He told the Iraq inquiry that he knew he could not get explicit authorization in 1441 so he tried to replicate the 1998 situation where Resolution 1205 implicitly revived authorization under 678.  Ultimately that is what Greenstock claims he achieved, it was the argument that Attorney General used in his advice of March 14th and it is what Britain went to war on.  Furthermore, if we leave it at that one might conclude that Blair achieved his objective, which was to reconcile US policy with the international community.

There are two problems with this conclusion however. 

The first is the interpretation of 1441.  On the one side of the debate we have the 3 G’s (Greenstock, Greenwood and Goldsmith) who argue that 1441 only required the Security Council to convene and consider what to do after Iraq was found to be in further material breach; and on the other side we have seemingly every other international lawyer, not least the Foreign Office lawyers (the 2 W’s Wood and Wilmshurst) who argue that the Security Council had to convene and decide what to do.  Contrary to the Attorney General, who admits he was influenced by US lawyers on this, the Foreign Office lawyers did not believe individual member state could decide whether military force was appropriate or not

The second is the fact that the Attorney General had said all the way up his advice on the 14th that the revived authority argument was not the safest legal argument.  Click here for his advice of the 7th.  That of course led Blair to go back to the Security Council to get a second resolution.  When he failed to do this he reverted back to an argument that he and (ironically) Robin Cook had used to justify the use of force without explicit authorization from the Security Council.  They both argued then that the Russians were being unreasonable in their opposition to NATO and Blair argued in 2003 of course that France was being unreasonable in their opposition to the invasion of Iraq.  The problem with this however was that in 1999 Russia would have been using its veto to defend a minority position, whereas in 2003 France would have used its veto to support a majority position.  This has since been acknowledged by Greenstock and it was articulated at the time by Cook

It is not France alone that wants more time for inspections. Germany wants more time for inspection; Russia wants more time for inspection; indeed, at no time have we signed up even the minimum necessary to carry a second resolution. We delude ourselves if we think that the degree of international hostility is all the result of President Chirac. The reality is that Britain is being asked to embark on a war without agreement in any of the international bodies of which we are a leading partner – not NATO, not the European Union and, now, not the Security Council.

Regardless of whether one thinks the war was legal or not, I argue that going to war in this situation was unjustified.  Furthermore, to claim that it was an action done in the name of international society is not only incorrect, it does immense damage to the normative power of that idea.  It lends credence to the cynical side of the realist critique, which is that international society is just a rhetorical veil to cover great power hegemony.

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About Jason Ralph

Jason Ralph, Professor of International Relations, University of Leeds
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