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cristopher meyer
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Meyer was Britain's ambassador to the U.S. from 1997 through February 2003, during which time he participated in some of the crucial debates on Iraq. Here, he talks about British Prime Minister Tony Blair's first meeting with George W. Bush and the variables that inspire the alliance between the two leaders. Meyer also talks about the strong personalities that may have "bedeviled" the diplomatic negotiations between Blair and his European counterparts. Ultimately, Meyer holds out hope that the U.N. will survive this challenge and emerge from post-war Iraq a strengthened institution. This interview was conducted on March 18, 2003.

[Talk about the first meeting between President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Blair.]

I remember it pretty vividly. ... A lot of people on both sides of the Atlantic were worried that this relationship wasn't going to work. Blair had gone extremely well with Clinton; here was a new American president, belonging to a different party, after a controversial election. A lot of people back in London were disappointed that Al Gore hadn't become president. ... I had met Bush in 1998, when he was governor of Texas, and of course I knew Tony Blair very well. I had a hunch that it was going to work out all right. ... And it did work OK; it worked extremely well.

[Blair] was pretty determined to go all the way with President Bush; not because he's hanging on to this relationship for dear life, but because he truly believed, as he does today, that Saddam Hussein was an offense to the integrity of the U.N.

We had flown up to Camp David from Washington, D.C., having seen the vice president, which had been a rather sort of stiff interview. ... We were all in our suits and ties and things. Of course, as soon as you get to Camp David, you've got to take off your tie, get out of your suits and put on a kind of regulation chinos and open-necked blue shirt and blazer or whatever. So we did that as soon as we got off the helicopters, and went to the big lodge at Camp David where the president receives his guests. ... The first thing we did, because we got up there at midday, was go and have lunch. ...

It got off to a very good start, almost from the first syllable uttered, because Bush said to Blair, "Welcome to Camp David, Tony. May I call you Tony?" And Blair said, "Well, thank you for this warm welcome, George. May I call you George?" Then the president said to Blair, without any sort of ceremony or farce or some kind of grandiloquent statement, "Well, what shall we talk about?" Blair said, "We might as well start with the Middle East," and Bush said, "Good idea. Shall we do Iraq first?" ...

 
 

My hunch was that there was a kind of no-nonsense quality and informality to the two of them, which would enable them to at least start bonding very, very quickly, and that's what happened. We were there for 24 hours, and it warmed up rapidly over that very brief period of time.

[What was said about Iraq at that meeting?]

Well, it was very different then. What you have to remember is that before 9/11, the issue really between Britain and the United States -- and indeed for the whole Security Council - was, how do you make sanctions work better? The whole sanction system was going wrong for two reasons. One was it had become unbelievably cumbersome and there was this oil for food program, which was being partly hampered because the kinds of innocuous stuff that people were allowed to sell to the Iraqis was being held up by very cumbersome sanctions of the system.

The other thing, of course, was that the sanctions were beginning to leak more and more and [be] violated. So the issue at that time was, how do you sharpen the sanctions regime? How do you tighten up on Saddam without generating collateral damage to innocent Iraqis -- women and children and so on and so forth? That was the focus. ...

[So at that point, you were mainly discussing to effectively administer the sanctions?]

Yes, we were. I have to say to you that the notion of regime change is not new to this Republican administration. Congress or the Senate had passed a resolution which had effectively demanded regime change when President Clinton was in power. It was always plain to me when talking to the Clinton administration that nobody but nobody believed that it would be possible to disarm Saddam Hussein without removing him. So this is not, in that sense, a Bush introduction.

The other thing I should say to you is that, although the discussion started with at least the issues that really weighed on everybody's minds at that time, February 2001 had nothing to do with the Middle East. It was Russia, missile defense, ABM treaty; and on the European side and on the British side, the so-called European defense initiative.

[You weren't worried about the very different political affiliations of these two men?]

Well, there's been a long tradition since the Second World War of party affiliation on each side of the Atlantic not really having a great deal to do with whether the leaders get on or don't get on. When the leaders haven't got on, it also hasn't really had anything to do with party affiliation. So I was not looking at the politics of George Bush or the politics of Tony Blair when I had this hunch that, as personalities, they were going to get on together.

As I said at the beginning, I think what helped was an informality, lack of pomposity on both sides, directness. Each side appreciated the frankness of the other, and they, just as personalities, seemed to be getting on. Now we now know as time has passed that the fact that both of them, although different ways, I think are driven by very strong principles and notions of faith and also I think must have helped the two of them get on. But it worked very well.

[How did the nature of the Bush/Blair relationship change after Sept. 11?]

... The important point I ought to make before answering that question is to say that, in the period between that first meeting at Camp David in February 2001, up to, say, Sept. 10, Blair and Bush had had a series of meetings. The relationship was warming up nicely as we went along. Sept. 11 was the great accelerator in that relationship. ...

[Talk about that day, when Blair came to the U.S. and sat in for the president's speech before the joint session of Congress.]

We finally got to the White House after this very emotional morning [in New York]. One of the issues was, were the Americans going to use 9/11, quite apart from hunting down Al Qaeda, to go after Iraq as well? Tony Blair's view was, whatever you're going to do about Iraq, you should concentrate on the job at hand, and the job at hand was get Al Qaeda. Give the Taliban an ultimatum, and everything else was secondary to that.

We arrived at the White House, ... and immediately, the president took Blair by the elbow and moved him off into the corner of the room, where we all congregated, and he said, I believe, to the prime minister, "I agree with you that the job in hand is Al Qaeda and Taliban. Iraq, we keep for another day."

Then we went in and had dinner. The discussion over dinner was about dealing with Al Qaeda. That was essentially the thrust of discussion. We then went up to Capitol Hill for the president's speech, the joint session of Congress. The prime minister traveled with the president, which was already a sign of a mark of some intimacy.

The climax of the day ... was the president's acknowledgement of Tony Blair in the guests' gallery before his speech, which he paid tribute to Tony Blair's solidarity and the support from the British people. I think that was the defining moment of the day. ...

The British-American relationship under Bush and under Blair had moved onto a new level, onto a new plane. Britain had been consecrated as the closest ally, and Blair and Bush were, if you like, two leaders in harness, about together, with whoever else was going to join them to slay the dragon of international terrorism.

[When did the idea of going after Saddam Hussein start to gain currency?]

I think early in 2002. ... Once it was clear that, at least from a military point of view, the enemy was to all intents and purposes defeated in Afghanistan, you could see the U.S. administration looking around the world to see where else the threat should be confronted. As you know, for a long time there had ... been people who were in this administration who had felt that Saddam Hussein was someone who had to be dealt with, and dealt with quickly. Now there are a variety of tributaries that flow into this river that leads to regime change and disarmament. But it was becoming an active subject of discussion, I guess, in the first quarter of 2002. ...

I think Blair and Bush have come to the view that you have to deal with Saddam Hussein through very different paths. Blair was prime minister of the United Kingdom in 1997, 1998, when Saddam provoked the first crisis with the inspectors. So Blair has had experience from that time, formed a view at that time -- a view which said the international community, one way or another, has got to deal with Saddam Hussein.

President Bush comes into government in January 2001 and is not immediately focused on Iraq from a war fighting point of view, to put it crudely. For Bush, the transforming moment as far as Iraq is concerned, is 9/11. ... They have an earlier priority, which is the Taliban and Al Qaeda. But once they're out of the way, more or less, then Iraq comes up front. And as it comes up front, the nexus, the two lines cross between the way in which Blair has first seized the issue and the way that Bush subsequently is.

They're not coming from identical positions; they come from positions which intersect. ...

[How and when did a clear shift in British foreign policy towards the United States begin?]

Well, you've got to remember something about Tony Blair and this is something I've had to remind people of frequently, particularly those who have accused him of being "Bush's poodle." When we had the start of the crisis with Saddam Hussein in 1998, which then led to the expulsion of the previous set of inspectors, UNSCOM, Blair made a very interesting speech to I think it was members of the Labor Party in January 1998, in which idea for idea, proposition for proposition, he said about Saddam Hussein what he's been saying in the last days, weeks and months. [He] challenged [the] international community [to] try and deal with it by diplomacy; if you can't deal with it by diplomacy, it's got to have a credible threat of force. ...

Of course, in January 1998, he was a voice crying in the wilderness. But when this kind of policy thinking started in the White House in the first quarter of 2002, I think Blair was ready to start discussing seriously with the Americans what this meant, and if this was going to be pursued, how did you do it? What was the right way of doing it? So I suppose somewhere around the time of the British-American summit in Crawford, Texas, when Tony Blair spent a weekend with George Bush at the ranch, was when really serious discussion began between the two sides.

[Talk about some of the major hurdles, diplomatic and otherwise, that still existed between the Brits and Americans.]

... Politically, the main issue that we had to discuss with the Americans -- and initially they were pretty reluctant to think about this -- was, once you'd won your campaign, how did you consolidate what you'd achieved by feat of arms? We pressed them very early on for some kind of stabilization or security force. At the time, they were immensely allergic to the notion of either nation building or peacekeeping. You had to come up with another phrase so you weren't mentioning these hideous terms.

I suppose the main political and diplomatic challenge at the end of [2001, beginning of] 2002 was to come up with arrangements for the so-called international security assistance force, ISAF, which is based in Kabul, which we, the U.K., led to start off with. How was that going to fit in with General Franks's campaign and U.S. chain of command? That took some hard founding, and in the end it came out OK.

[Let's turn to the "axis of evil" speech. What was the reaction here to that phrase in Bush's 2002 State of the Union address?]

... We'd had a few hours advance warning; you never get more than that for a State of the Union speech. So when I heard him actually say the words "axis of evil," it took me back many years to Moscow, when I was in the embassy there in the early 1980s. I heard Reagan characterize the Soviet Union as "the evil empire." Reactions to the phrase "evil empire" were very similar to the reactions that have been to "axis of evil."

I think with the passage of time, when we look back now on "evil empire," most people would say it actually played some kind of role in encouraging the transformation of the old totalitarian Soviet Union to a reasonably democratic Russia of today. I remember thinking at the time of these memories: I wonder whether a similar fate will befall "axis of evil." [Will it be] excoriated when first renounced by the outside world, but with the passage of time, seen to have played some kind of benevolent role? Who knows?

[What advice did you send back to London following this speech?]

I said, "Cool it, just no knee-jerk reactions, please. Understand why the phrase was used. Don't jump to conclusions. Start working immediately" -- as indeed we were in the embassy -- "with the administration about what the practical policy consequences were of putting Iran, North Korea and Iraq in the same box." Rhetorically, [they were] in the same box. But would it mean as a matter of policy in the same box?

In fact, as a matter of policy, they were not put in the same box.

[Did the "axis of evil speech" ring alarm bells for you?]

Well, maybe I've been around in this game too long. Maybe my senses have been dulled by years of working for the Foreign Office. But it didn't ring alarm bells for me, because I was pretty damned certain that they weren't going to do something aggressive like attack North Korea immediately. I certainly didn't think they were going to do that with Iran, because I knew what their analysis of Iran was. But it seemed to me that, apart from generally warning dictators with weapons of mass destruction around the world that they better watch their step, that this was one of the things that started to clear the underbrush for dealing with Iraq.

[Was it a problem of Bush's style of rhetoric?]

Yes, there was a problem there; there is a problem today. Bush and his administration are rhetorically in such striking contrast to Clinton and his administration's way of speaking publicly that I think Europeans and British have found it very difficult to make the transition, the adaptation from Clinton to Bush.

Although this sounds like a rather frivolous marginal point, I think actually it has not helped the recent diplomatic campaign to try and get a second resolution on Iraq. I think this has been a factor in the difficulties that we've had over the last few weeks. ...

[What arose from the meeting between Bush and Blair at the president's ranch in Crawford, Texas, in April 2002?]

On Iraq, I think this was the start of a process which went on for a few months, during which we, the British, said to the Americans, "If you are going to bring Saddam Hussein into compliance with all those resolutions of which he remains in violation, you could do this on your own. You have the military strength to go into Iraq and do it. But our advice to you is, even a great superpower like the United States needs to do this with partners and allies. And the best way of trying to get a good coalition together is to exhaust the processes which the U.N. offers."

So that was the beginning of our saying to the United States, "You can do it alone. But you'd do better to try and use the United Nations."

[In your opinion, was Crawford the point at which Blair decided to go to war?]

It may well be that that was Blair's intuition. But certainly at that stage, it was not inevitable. I know that President Bush has always believed that Saddam Hussein was a leopard who would never change his spots, so that the U.S. administration -- or at least the president -- did not believe it was possible to disarm Iraq without removing Saddam Hussein. ...

On the other hand, I think if you had questioned people in the White House all through that, yes, they would have preferred to see, if you like, the Iraqi regime implode under pressure from the outside and have Saddam removed by some internal process, which would have obviated the need for an invasion.

[But the policy on regime change -- when did that become the official line of attack?]

... The British government had never subscribed to the notion of regime change. ... We had never said that as a government. I remember when Robin Cook was foreign secretary and he actively campaigned against the notion of regime change.

But as a matter of practical politics, of realpolitik, if you are asked a question, "Can you disarm Iraq without changing the regime?" your answer would have to be, "No, of course you can't," because if Saddam Hussein had actually come into compliance 100 percent as laid down by all these resolutions, he would have had to have a personality transplant, a soul transplant; he would not have been Saddam Hussein. So that was always the reality that underlay things, that you knew he would trick and lie and deceive at every point unless forced to do otherwise.

So the short answer to your question is, I think the Blair realization and all the realists in the British government realization was, pretty early on, this was the way it would be.

[And same question for going through the U.N. -- how did that come about?]

I think the case for going through the U.N. came to its climax in July and very early August. At some stage in July -- I don't remember exactly when -- the prime minister sent a message to the president laying out the case. ... I was obviously sending the same message from my vantage point in Washington. ...

There are clear practical advantages in trying to use the U.N. route. I don't think anyone was making the case to the president from a point of high principle; it was a matter of practical politics or practicalities. You can do this thing in different ways. What is the one that is most likely to be able to make it in the best circumstances possible for trying to do it through the U.N.?

I think, by the first week in August, that argument was won in Washington in that the president had accepted it in principle. ...

[At the same time that the diplomatic machine started to work at the U.N., some in the Bush administration were signaling their skepticism about such a process.]

That's quite right. But of course I think there are a number of things to be said here. First of all, August being the holiday month in Washington, the interagency process was not exactly working in the normal way. So I think the president had been convinced early in that month that this was the right thing to do, but the extent to which this had been communicated through the system during the month of August was not clear to me.

It is true that the vice president made a speech on the Aug. 26 which was extremely skeptical of the U.N. processes and of the inspectors, and he retains that skepticism. But I think a few days afterwards, he made another speech, in which it was clear that he had [stepped] back, in public at least anyway, from what he had said to the veterans' association on Aug. 26. The reason he gave the second speech was because he had come under pressure from the White House to shave, if you like, what he had said so cogently on Aug. 26. ...

[Talk about some of the other diplomatic debates taking place at this point.]

Well, one of the arguments that was already looming into view was that you wanted to disarm Iraq with the broadest coalition possible -- not simply because that was the best way of fighting a war -- but you had to start thinking about what was going to happen after a war. It was plain as a pike staff to the British that if you needed U.N. backing if at all possible for fighting a war, you sure as hell needed the U.N. for the period afterwards when you would be hoping to stabilize and help democracy take root in a unified Iraq. For how long, God only knows, but you certainly needed the expertise in the U.N., both for practical reasons. ...

[We've heard rumors that Blair made a pledge to Bush: that if Bush agreed to go through the U.N., Blair would support a military action, come what may.]

Well, the prime minister always had this idea that the United States should not be left alone to take on the responsibilities of the world. He had for a long time -- as I said, since 1998 -- seen in Saddam Hussein a challenge to the international community to which the international community had not yet responded.

So he was pretty determined to go all the way with President Bush; not because he's sort of hanging on to this relationship for dear life, but because -- and I really believe this, from talking to the prime minister and observing him over many years -- he truly believed, as he does today, that Iraq and Saddam Hussein was an offense to the integrity of the U.N. and the Security Council on which so much else depends. It was in that framework that he made that commitment to the president.

[How much influence did Blair and your office really have with the Bush administration?]

I think that everybody in the U.S. administration -- from even those most skeptical about the utility of the U.N. in the vice president's office and in the Defense Department, for example -- took comfort from the fact that Tony Blair was so firm and in support. I think it played a very, very important role, a very important role, and it enabled us at crucial points along the path to influence decisions which were contentious inside the U.S. administration.

[Even though you say Blair had tremendous influence, you still had to fight some tough battles.]

... We weren't the only people arguing for [going through the U.N.]. There was Powell and others in the administration. But we were there making a powerful argument.

Then we came to the president's speech itself at the U.N. in September [2002], a matter of massive debate inside the administration, many drafts gone through and discarded. The argument that Blair was making all the time was in summoning the United Nations to take its responsibilities. You had also to refer to the need for a further resolution. It was the reference to the further resolution which became so contentious in the last hours before the speech was delivered. In the end, the argument was won. But I believe, for weird reasons, that that particular reference fell off the teleprompter copy of the president's speech, so that when he referred to working for a further resolution, I think he actually said it in the plural. He was doing it from memory and not off the teleprompter. So that was a battle that had to be won.

Then we came into the negotiation of 1441 itself. That took eight or nine weeks altogether. Part of that period was taken up by an intensive negotiation between the British and the Americans about the type of resolution that we wanted to put into the Security Council for discussion. There were those in the White House who argued that, in calling in the resolution for Saddam to make a full and final declaration of his holdings and weapons of mass destruction, that if he issued a false declaration, that should immediately be a casus belli. ...

We always said to the administration that that was an insufficient reason for going to war. It should be weighed in the balance if his declaration was defective -- as indeed it was -- but we also had to take into account what it was that the inspectors encountered when they went into Baghdad.

That was a tough battle. That was tough. I remember having a very strong exchange with Scooter Libby, the vice president's chief of staff, about this. [He] felt that ... Saddam Hussein [had] transgressed over the last 12 years, that a further declaration, which was a lying declaration, should itself be a reason for war. But we said, "No, that won't run. It won't wash in the Security Council."

We were right, and indeed, we won that point. ...

[There's some speculation that war with Iraq, at least from the U.S. perspective, was a foregone conclusion, and that these intense debates really didn't affect the arc of the process.]

Well, no, I don't think so at all, because otherwise the record would be different. ... In my view, the U.S. administration would not have stuck with what was effectively a two-month negotiation over Resolution 1441, given the hostility to becoming embroiled in the U.N. process in certain quarters of the administration, unless they had realized how important it was to us and how important our arguments were.

I think that all the effort that has been made to try and get a second resolution -- far more important in the end for the British government than for the U.S. administration -- ... there's again evidence that we had very serious leverage over the U.S. administration on this. I think actually the argument was the reverse; precisely because the Americans knew that the British were coming from a position of principle, of strong support, and would do their level best to help on this, this gave us enormous leverage. I think if we'd been ambiguous or lukewarm, then the game would have run away from us completely.

[Talk about the significance of getting 1441 through the Security Council and the disappointment of not being able to get a second resolution.]

... When we got Resolution 1441 through unanimously, it was, at one level, a very great triumph. It was extraordinary. It did show apparently a wholesale unity between the two sides of the Atlantic.

Of course, the trouble with that resolution was it had an implicit fault line running through it. The argument had always been from the French and the Russians that 1441 could not be an automatic trigger for war, that you had to come back to the U.N., and the French argued then in terms of a second resolution.

The British position was not identical to that of the American, and it was not the same as that of the French. We said a second resolution was desirable, but not essential, and anyway, when the inspectors reported, there would have to be further debate inside the Security Council. That was how we covered the fault line in 1441.

The trouble was, as we moved from 1441 to what it meant in practice, the camouflage over the fault line was stripped away and the fault line opened up to where we are today -- without being able to get a second resolution. Now the conventional wisdom for a long time had been, not unreasonably, that when you get into a dispute with the French over an issue like this, they will cause a lot of trouble for a long time. It'll take a lot of diplomacy to get around this, but in the end, when push comes to shove, they'll be there with their armed forces.

I suppose it must have been at some stage in January that the penny began to drop; that maybe we were going to have to write a new conventional wisdom for French foreign policy.

[The U.N. meeting in New York on Jan. 20, 2003, has been called the "notorious ambush." Was this the moment that it became obvious that the French would not comply?]

The U.S. administration was incandescent about the so-called ambush after the meeting of Jan. 20. Colin Powell himself was furious at what had happened.

There had been great reluctance to come to that meeting on Jan. 20, in any event. The French had wanted a meeting to discuss international terrorism. It was deeply inconvenient for a lot of foreign ministers to come to it. De Villepin apparently picked up the phone, pressed Powell very hard to come to New York [and British Foreign Minister] Jack Straw equally. ... Nonetheless, out of a sign of solidarity, the French, the British and American foreign ministers came, and then there was the so-called ambush.

I think it seriously envenomed the relationships for the further negotiating that was to come. It was at that point that people began to review their view of the way in which the French were going to play this. ...

[How did the Americans react to de Villepin's comments?]

I happened to see Colin Powell pretty soon after the meeting on Jan. 20 with his deputy, Rich Armitage. I think what I would say to you is that their remarks were bordering on the unprintable. ... They felt they had been ambushed. They felt that they'd been called to New York on false pretenses, and had been put in an extremely difficult and invidious position. ...

I think for Colin Powell there was an additional problem here. There were always those in the administration who were questioning the usefulness of continuing this process of negotiation inside the Security Council. ... As the arch apostle of trying to exhaust the process, take the process as fast [and] as far as possible as he was, [Powell] had the ground cut from under him.

[Talk about the decision to move forward in trying to secure a second resolution from the Security Council. Blair visited Bush again in January 2003 to make his case.]

The argument over whether or not there should be a second resolution, I think, in the end came down to questions of practical politics. When Tony Blair arrived in January for yet another one of his lightning visits to the U.S., he was supposed to go to Camp David, but the weather made it impossible so we met at the White House. Blair made it perfectly clear that for all those who wished to be with the United States in disarming Saddam Hussein -- Britain, Turkey, Australia, Spain, Italy -- there were others [that were] all saying that, more for political than for any legal reason, they needed to make a best efforts attempt to get a second resolution. This was the heart of the case made to Bush.

Now at the moment that Blair arrived in Washington in January, the administration had not made up its mind. They were doubtful about the utility of a second resolution. Some argued for it, some argued against it, so there was a kind of wavering. So Blair's visit was very, very timely, because he was able to make the argument pretty forcefully. The result of that was the president deciding that they would try for a second resolution. ...

[How did the idea for a "road map" for peace in the Middle East move up onto the agenda?]

Blair had been pushing hard on the Middle East peace process for a very long time. It was as we've said ... a very, very big factor in the discussion and one of the consistent things that Tony Blair has said to the Americans over all this time in which Iraq has been an important factor: ... "If we have to go to war, we will improve the conditions in which we wage war if we are seen also to be making a real good faith attempt to unwind the cycle of violence between Israel and the Palestinians."

On the whole, that was not an argument where we made as much progress as we would have wished to have made.

[There's some speculation that a war with Iraq had always been planned for the spring of 2003.]

Oh, I think the timetable has changed quite a bit, actually. ... The Americans and their allies had, I think, a basic choice for 2003 and it was a kind of meteorological choice as well as anything else. You had two windows: one was a spring window and one was an autumn window -- all this to avoid the famous heat of the Iraqi deserts. So a decision had to be made, and it wasn't taken I know until quite late last year about whether you should go for the spring definitely, rather than for the autumn. I think a whole set of factors came into an analysis -- political, diplomatic and military -- which fell on going for the spring and not for the autumn.

This was not a purely military-driven thing. I think there was an analysis. It was almost an economic analysis. How long could you leave the U.S. economy and the world economy in a state of uncertainty? How long could Jordan stand this? How long could the Turks stand it? The allies that you hope to have with you, militarily -- how long could they be kept in harness, if you like to use a rather crude term, if you waited until the autumn?

So towards the end of the last year, a definitive judgement was made in Washington that it was better to go in the spring than in the autumn. I think as far as the U.K. was concerned, we largely agreed with that analysis -- that it would be better to go sooner rather than later for a whole variety of factors. ...

[Did something happen between Tony Blair and President Bush before their press conference together in January 2003?]

... They came downstairs from their talks. They were very satisfied; [they had] reached conclusions about what was going to happen next. We're all standing around in our groups waiting for them to go in the press conference. It all looks terrific, in they go. And frankly, they make a bog of it; it just doesn't come out right. The president gets irritated with the first question he takes, because it's a double question or a triple question, which he doesn't like.

The prime minister, I think, was overanxious to make the case against Saddam from first principle. So the question took too long to answer. They didn't look particularly comfortable behind the lecterns, and I thought, "Oh, God, this is not good."

Then we went up to supper in the private quarters. We were sitting around the table and, as prime ministers and presidents do, they look to their courtiers and say, "Well, how did we do?" ... There was a deathly hush around the table. Then I think it was, as you might imagine, Alistair Campbell [the prime minister's director of communications] who said, "Well, I'm afraid that the journalists will go away from that press conference thinking the two of you have had a row." And they both looked stunned, because they hadn't had a row. ...

[The idea of containing your enemies has governed foreign policy for decades. Talk about what's being called the "Bush doctrine," the policy of preemption -- of going after your enemies before they come after you.]

I think the national security strategy which was published in the summer of last year did alarm a lot of people around the world, because it looked like a radical departure from previous practice in American foreign policy. Indeed, actually you could put that interpretation on it, if you wanted to. You could say, taken literally, these words mean a rampaging hyper-power who'll whiz around the world, whacking people left right and center, whenever it sees its security interests threatened.

I don't actually believe that that was ever the intention. Nor did I personally ever feel that it was hugely different from previous statements of national security by previous administrations. But I've been dealing with the United States for a very long time, close up. People who are not so familiar, and people who have got used to the rhetoric of the Clinton administration -- which after all was in power for eight years -- I think found this deeply alarming, and it did not help. It added to the caricature of the United States as an aggressive imperialist country which was, oh, going to throw over its alliances, its multilateral connections, and do whatever it felt like doing. ...

[How much did the personality clashes affect the diplomatic process?]

A number of things have bedeviled these negotiations for a second Security Council resolution. For whatever reason, some of the personalities involved and the personal relations across the Atlantic have not been as good as they should have been. The relationships at a personal level between the top in the United States and in France have not been as good as they should be. Something similar has happened between the U.S. and Germany, particularly since Chancellor Schröder's election campaign and his making his opposition to war against Iraq being such a centerpiece of it. This has not helped at all.

There has also been an extraordinary capacity on each side of the Atlantic to irritate each other. I think some of the things that Chancellor Schröder, President Chirac, Foreign Minister de Villepin have said have been almost calculated to enrage the Americans; whereas on the U.S. side of the Atlantic, some of the things said and the way in which it has been expressed have had an equal ... impact in Europe, particularly in continental Europe. A lot of people, when they listen to Don Rumsfeld, become highly alarmed and irritated in Europe. I think his quip about old Europe and new Europe was very badly calculated indeed, and this has had an effect.

It is not the only thing. I think that you have to look deep into the foreign and domestic policies of Moscow and Paris to understand where they've been coming from in the debate in the Security Council on the second resolution. You have to ask yourself why it is that two Latin American countries, Mexico and Chile, traditionally great friends of the U.S., felt themselves unable to commit, as far as I know, to a yes vote, and so on and so forth.

So I think what we have seen -- and this is going to require some more analysis with the passage of time -- ... is a kind of toxic combination of geopolitical differences, linked to some damaging personality clashes.

[There are those who place a great deal of blame on France.]

... I'm inclined to apportion a good deal of blame to France. I'm not saying that with the benefit of hindsight there haven't been things which the United States and the United Kingdom could have done better. I always ask myself the question [of] whether it was ever possible within a framework of bringing this issue to a closure by the late spring. ... One's going to have to stand back a bit to decide whether that's a right analysis or not. Was it ever going to be possible between the passage of 1441 and what was at Nov. 8 and the end of March to bring everything together in a way which would unite the Security Council behind disarming Saddam Hussein if he hadn't given in or been removed by an assassin's bullet or whatever? So that's one thing.

But I think the French, by what they have said, ... have themselves committed an extraordinary illogicality, because the only thing that has made Saddam move as far as he has moved to disarm has been the threat of war -- a quarter of a million American and British troops. So the French, by getting up and, if you like, exercising their own doctrine of preemption by saying in advance they would veto in whatever circumstances, they have reduced -- almost negated -- the very pressure which was actually enabling the inspectors to make progress.

So when I hear from Paris and from other capitals, "Look, the inspectors are making progress, let them continue," this is, to me, fraudulent. It is fraudulent because it isn't the inspectors, however good, however diligent they may be, who are making the progress. It is the British and American troops behind them who are inducing the Iraqis to move. So to undercut that is actually itself to follow the logic of war.

[There were reports, though, that the French were terribly alarmed at Bush's new doctrine of pre-emption and what it meant to the new world order. They did what they did in order to mount a challenge to it.]

Well, [it was a] damn stupid battlefield to choose to argue about the new world or the post-Cold War or whatever. It would have been far better if people had focused on the essential -- the essential being that Iraq signed up to a set of obligations so that a cease-fire could be signed in 1991. Since that year, they have been in constant violation of the cease-fire terms. If anything has done damage to the U.N. and to the Security Council, it has been their failure to be able to bring Saddam Hussein to book.

It should have been done in 1998 when UNSCOM was forced to leave. But the Security Council didn't want to do it. And if we talk more about getting the Security Council to take up its responsibilities so that it is a vibrant and live component in the United Nations, then we are nearer the heart of the argument than to talk about the re-ordering of a post-war world. ...

I'm very much afraid that, by choosing this particular ground and the set of arguments that the French had advanced, the effect is to make the Americans disillusioned with the United Nations and the Security Council, and to make the Security Council itself incapable of dealing with Saddam in a way which should have been done many years ago, 13 years after the signing of the cease-fire agreements from 1991.

[How long can Blair act as a bridge between the U.S. and its European allies?]

You see a lot of people now say the notion of Britain as a bridge between Europe and the United States is in ruins because of what we've seen over the last few days, that the E.U. common and foreign and security policy is a mess, that NATO has split, the Security Council will never rise again from the dead.

There is always a tendency to over-dramatize in the immediate aftermath of these events. I think that the Blair policy of leading in Europe and being a strong partner with the United States is alive and well, because the problem is not for Blair; the problem is for Europe as a whole. On the issue of Iraq, Tony Blair has been in a strategic alliance with the Spaniards, with the Italians, with the Portuguese, ... with a majority of members and soon-to-be members, both of the European Union and of NATO. So in a sense, your question about can Blair straddle the two sides of the Atlantic is less a question for the British than it is for the Germans and for the French.

Now there's going to have to be some repair work after this. But I think that, if we don't look at this as melodramatically -- as some do -- this is doable. It's going to take time, but the problem is less for Blair, more for in my view, Chirac and Schröder. ...

[Is this the end of the U.N.?]

I think one can exaggerate the power and influence of the United States in the world today. We've, to a degree, fallen victim to the propaganda of some in Europe who talk about it being so gigantically monstrously powerful that the world has never seen anything similar.

I think that what history teaches us, even today, is that in most tough situations in the world, the United States cannot go it alone, and actually doesn't want to go it alone. This administration, in my experience, doesn't want to do things alone. It has worked very closely with the international community on Afghanistan. There's going to be some kind of coalition or other for Iraq. ... It is an administration and a country where [there is] the need of friends despite some evidence to the contrary.

As to the U.N. in the future, I don't believe that the allies have got to find some new mechanism for reining in this hyper-power, because one consequence of the defeat and removal of Saddam Hussein could quite likely, be in my view, the return of the United States to the U.N. to mobilize international community, to take advantage of the situation in Iraq, where the tyrant, the dictator has finally been removed.

I hold out to you one ironic possibility: that a year from now, we'll be talking about the revival of the United Nations, the effectiveness of the Security Council, the decisions that have been taken to bring democracy back to Iraq following the demise of Saddam Hussein.

 

 

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posted april 3, 2003

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