Bush's War

Sir Christopher Meyer

photo of meyer

Meyer served as the British ambassador to the United States from 1997 to February 2003. In this interview, he recounts the British perspective on the diplomatic battles after 9/11 and leading up to the war in Iraq. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on Dec. 20, 2007.

Describe the phone call you made to [then-National Security Adviser] Condoleezza Rice on 9/11.

The phone call was, in a sense, the obvious one: "Is there anything we can do to help? Do you need any specialist help in New York City to dig into the ruins? Is there anything we can do, anything? And, by the way, who do you think did it?" And her reply was: "No, we think we've got everything we need in New York to deal with the situation. If we need anything, we'll come back to you. And thank you for your condolences."

By then, I think it was fairly obvious it was Al Qaeda. She said as much over the phone. And I think it was in the same conversation, or it may have been the next one we had very soon after, she said, "Well, one thing we need to look into is to see whether Iraq's had anything to do with this." But at the time, it was Al Qaeda up front as the likely main culprit.

What was your reaction to her mentioning Iraq?

At the time we didn't know anything. I knew that there had always been suspicions about Iraqi involvement in the earlier attack on the World Trade Center, the failed one in '93.

At that moment, I didn't really think very much about it, because [in] all this chaos, nobody really knew anything for sure. Where was the president of the United States, for example? So one didn't start to crystallize, if you like, in a seriously analytical way until the initial shock had worn off. And I suppose by the late afternoon of that day, we were already in the groove, the crisis groove, in a proper way.

What was the conversation Tony Blair had with the president soon after that?

I can't remember the exact sequence of conversations now. ... But I think very early on, when it was quite obvious that this was Al Qaeda that had done this thing, I think the initial concern in London was I suppose very sort of condescending, really; was there should be no sort of knee-jerk, cowboy, instant reaction to this without a bit of forethought about what ought to be done. And I think this was part of the initial Blair message, was to check on how Bush was going to react to this.

We had already picked up in the embassy that there was going to be no knee-jerk reaction; there was going to be no sort of wild overreaction; that this was going to take some thought, and the proper thing to do would be done after the due deliberation. That was the same message as Tony Blair got, and I think it was very reassuring for the government in London. ...

There had been a meeting in Washington of the main intelligence chiefs from London with their opposite numbers, CIA and your other agencies, so we already had some kind of data on all this. … It only became, I think, toward the end of the week that we became concerned that if indeed it was Al Qaeda, if this was Afghanistan, if this was the Taliban, that that should be the primary focus of any initial reaction and that we should not allow ourselves to be diverted by, if you like, other suspects, which would of course primarily have included Iraq. ...

Of course, by the time Tony Blair came to Washington that week, as we now know -- it's a matter of record -- again, the president had met with his main advisers at Camp David. There had been a debate about what to do next. There had been some there who had argued for going after Saddam Hussein straightaway. I believe [then-Deputy Secretary of Defense] Paul Wolfowitz was the main advocate of that. But the president had himself taken that decision over the weekend, that whatever might follow, the primary target was Al Qaeda. So by the time Blair came to Washington to have his talks with the president, he found himself pushing at an open door.

[What happened when Blair came to Washington?]

We arrived at the White House in time for supper before the speech the president was going to deliver. ... The president and the prime minister had a private word together before we went into dinner. We went into dinner, and it was made immediately clear to us that whatever might follow on Iraq, that the main preoccupation, the main priority was Afghanistan and what we should do there. Some people have alleged that Blair and Bush decided there and then, in the White House, that evening, to go after Iraq next. I have to say to you, that was never said in my hearing.

Blair was a skeptic about the targeting of Iraq at that point?

At that time, yeah. Blair has said this a number of times since then. His main concern was, if it was Al Qaeda, if Al Qaeda was being sheltered by the Taliban, if it was Afghanistan, then we had to focus like lasers there and not be distracted by something else. I think Tony Blair has always said once you're clear [about] what the primary objective is, you bend every effort toward that. And that was very much in the front of his mind, that we must challenge the Taliban, give them an ultimatum, and then -- and it was all at the same time -- develop international support for whatever course of action.

One of the things Blair said over dinner to the president, which I think he'd already suggested in a message, was that he, Tony Blair, [was] very willing to put his shoulder to the wheel to help rally international support behind the United States. And we mustn't forget -- and it's easy to do so now with the passage of time -- that at that moment, there was massive international sympathy for the United States of America, including -- people forget this also -- big pro-American demonstrations in Tehran.

What was this alliance about? What were the goals? What was in it for the British?

… Blair had this belief, rightly or wrongly, that if you didn't do this and left America out on its own at a time of great crisis like 9/11, then it would revert to the kind of isolationism which we had seen in the U.S., for example, in the 1920s and 1930s. ... So it was a natural reflex for Blair both politically, instinctively, even emotionally to assert the closest support for the United States in its hour of need.

How did Blair's philosophy of a post-9/11 Britain come into play, taking into account an understanding of what an alliance with the U.S. meant and what the goals really were?

There are many strands to this. I want to keep it sort of reasonably simple, but it is perfectly true that Blair intervened very actively internationally well before 9/11. Sierra Leone was saved from anarchy at the last minute. Blair, I think, would claim -- and I think he'd be right to claim here -- that he read Kosovo better than the Clinton administration did. ...

Now, if you've done that and you've also made a great speech in early 1999 in Chicago, which pronounces a kind of doctrine of humanitarian intervention -- you've got theory; you've got practice; and you've also got belief.

When the terrorists struck on 9/11, and Blair had been sensitized several years previously to the possible threat from Saddam Hussein, it was very easy for him intellectually to move from "We've got to deal with terrorists; we've got to deal with regimes that harbor terrorists; and the most terrifying danger to the world is rogue states with weapons of mass destruction who may allow such weapons to come into the hands of terrorists." Actually, [that] was the way that George Bush's thinking developed, and Tony Blair's thinking developed in a very, very similar way.

How do you believe Bush and the folks surrounding him viewed the relationship and the importance of that relationship?

At that time -- and I think this applies as much to the Clinton administration as to the Bush administration -- when the United States looked eastward toward the countries of the European Union, at that time, they would have identified the United Kingdom as the strongest partner/ally that they had, both economically and politically and militarily. The only other country in Europe that was capable of, as they say, projecting force with any effectiveness in the outside world besides United Kingdom was France. And at that time, the relationship with France was highly troubled, even before we got into the business of Iraq.

So there was the United Kingdom, the single most important European ally at the time. And I argue with people about this a lot, and particularly with Americans: I actually think that when serious planning was started on removing Saddam Hussein, the United States did not want to do this on its own. I mean, [then-Secretary of Defense] Don Rumsfeld and others will say, "If we have to, we'll do this on our own," but I'm morally sure that in the heart of the U.S. administration, they did not want to do this on their own if they could have avoided it. And so Britain and, to a lesser extent, Australia, Spain, [the] Italians, [were] very, very important to their anti-terrorism strategy.

After that dinner, the focus moves to the Capitol Hill speech. Describe the role that Blair played and the president's comments about Blair.

Think of it this way: The president is about to make the most important speech of his presidency. His performance since 9/11, although on an upward grade in the view of public opinion, was not considered by everybody in the United States of quite rising to the crisis. … He did quite a good speech at Washington Cathedral at the end of that week, and his performance at Ground Zero with the firefighters and the others was pretty good. But he hadn't quite seized the nation.

I remember over that first weekend people in the White House talking to me and my staff about, should he address the nation on television and radio? Should he make a speech to a joint session of Congress? Should he do something else? And in the end, they decided, it's going to be Congress. That's going to be the moment.

So here we are, the British prime minister with a small group of advisers, including the British ambassador, and we're having supper on the evening before this incredibly important speech from George W. Bush. And the president is sitting there talking calmly and dispassionately about Afghanistan, the Taliban and what we need to do. And it's we on the British side who start to get agitated for him: "Surely, Mr. President, you should be -- do you want to go through your speech?" And then we carry on talking a bit.

Now, a lot of very derogatory things are said about President George W. Bush, but I tell you this: That evening, he was clear-minded, he was articulate, and he was as cool as a cucumber, at least on the outside, to those of us watching. And finally at the end of the supper, he said, "You" -- to us, the team -- "you guys go on ahead. I'm going to take Tony upstairs, and we'll travel to Capitol Hill together." And my reaction to that was, "He's certainly cool as a cucumber." And that's a very great gesture of friendship, to say to Blair, you know, "You ride with me to the Hill." …

We got there, and the president started his speech. Almost straightaway, he paid tribute to Blair in a very public way. It was a very moving moment. It was an extremely moving moment, and it was said with very great eloquence.

I think the important point about that moment is that Blair and Bush had already got on pretty well. I mean, they were sort of feeling their way with each other still, but from that moment onward, the real legacy of 9/11 was that their relationship moved to a much higher plane at the end of that day. It became two people bound together on an enterprise on which they thought and felt very, very similarly. So the British-American relationship, Blair-Bush relationship, after that evening, was different in kind from what it had been before.

You've said Blair was seduced by the proximity and glamour of American power, and by Bush specifically. Explain what you mean.

Let me say straightaway, if you find yourself in close proximity to the presidency and the president of the United States, and you're in the White House, and the whole panoply of the American state and power are there, it is easy to be seduced. I was seduced by its proximity. I constantly had to sort of whisper into my pillow every evening, "Remember, you represent Britain."

So I felt that sometimes that the Number 10 [Downing Street] team found it exhilarating, almost intoxicating, to find themselves in a situation where, with the president of the world's only superpower, they could actually shift the pieces to change the international geopolitic, if you like. ...

So all this was an intoxicating brew, an intoxicating brew. And I think that one of its practical consequences was to let oneself be so carried away by the mission to be defined, but to be so carried away by the mission that it encouraged a tendency not to examine the hard details, particularly as to what would happen in Iraq if and when we were to remove Saddam Hussein.

What did you think of the 2002 State of the Union address?

I always used to find State of the Union speeches interesting, mainly for being in the chamber and looking around and seeing the theater of it all. I have to say the content of most of the speeches I listened to, it's not always riveting, and one's mind would drift.

And my mind was drifting during that State of the Union speech -- when suddenly a shot of lightning. There was this phrase, "axis of evil," and it really made me wake up. But it is not because I suddenly thought to myself, Jesus, is the United States about to attack three rogue states? As it were, it took me straight back to Ronald Reagan and the "evil empire," and when I'd heard the evil empire phrase. ...

I think the first report I sent back to London was to say: "Don't brush this phrase away as if it was exaggerated rhetoric. Remember the evil empire and just think of it, about what 'axis of evil' means." The conclusion I drew at the time was it wasn't surprising that these three countries [were] put in the same bracket, because if you went back to the famous piece that Condoleezza Rice wrote in Foreign Affairs at the beginning of 2000, she put those three countries together as categories, rightly or wrongly, as rogue states.

I remember saying to London, "It's only Iraq where there is serious military intent." So far as Iran is concerned, so far as North Korea is concerned, [it] is, in my view, my judgment, highly unlikely that anything military is going to be [done], anything anytime soon. ...

What was Tony Blair's point of view on attacking Iraq at this point?

I think the Blair point of view was this -- and it was articulated first and, in some ways, most clearly in the speech that he made in April 2002 at College Station, at the presidential archive, having spent the Friday night and the Saturday with George W. at his ranch at Crawford.

And the essence of it, the heart of it is that Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden are cut from the same cloth; they are part of a single problem. In other words, dealing with Saddam Hussein was integral to the war on terror.

Now, of course, this is possibly the most contentious premise of the entire Iraq invasion and occupation, that it was an integral part of the war on terror. But Tony Blair believed it implicitly, as did George W. Bush. And to this day, Tony Blair and those who were with him in government will still assert that there is a global war on terror, and that bringing Saddam Hussein down was part of the same mission as dealing with Osama bin Laden, Al Qaeda and [the] Taliban in Afghanistan. That was the heart of the position.

You were concerned that if we went in the direction of Iraq, that the U.S. would be concentrating only on winning the war, ignoring the postconflict situation in Iraq. Explain your concerns.

Something had already happened at the end of the previous year in the Afghanistan campaign. We had won there militarily, unexpectedly quickly. But because that happened, concerns arose immediately about, what do we do now? We couldn't get the international aid effort together as fast as we could have done. The war had been fought with warlord proxies from all over Afghanistan, while at the same time we were trying to create a new form of central governance in Kabul based on President [Hamid] Karzai. So even then we in the embassy in Washington were saying to London, the problem with Afghanistan is that the Americans have forgotten [war theorist Carl von] Clausewitz: that war is a pursuit of politics by other means. And now we needed to do the politics.

So when thinking started to develop audibly, we picked this up, that some contingency planning had begun on Iraq, which made people in Britain say that the Crawford summit was going to be the war summit, but vis-à-vis Iraq and not Afghanistan.

One of the things that we were saying from Washington was, "Yeah, this stuff is going on, but there's absolutely nothing going on about what happens if and when Saddam Hussein is brought down. And that is a black hole."

You've mentioned a Rice comment that you'd heard, that the British were seen as the ones that would clean up after America left.

This was in the Afghanistan context rather than in the Iraq context. Kabul, I don't think, had yet fallen, and I remember a meeting in the White House in which Condi was musing rather than sort of laying down the laws. She was saying, you know, "Once we win this campaign, what we would like to do is to look to our allies, Europeans, Japanese, to come in and do the civil-economic construction." …

I remember sending a message to London saying, "If this is what is going to happen, and we're going to go back and do this very, very difficult thing, entrenching a new form of governance in Afghanistan, please remember that British troops will be marching accompanied by the ghosts of those who were slaughtered in 1841."

So fast-forward to Iraq. It's not just my mind. There were the minds of many others in London. If we were going to do war -- and at the time, in my view, it was not clear that this was the inevitable outcome -- if we were going to do war, by God, we had to plan for the peace as well. And that was not evidently being done in Washington.

Or in the United Kingdom.

Well, there were people in the U.K. who were thinking about it, but in the end we were no better prepared. We were less well-prepared, actually, in many ways, than you were for the consequences of the removal of Saddam Hussein and his Baathist regime. So we are equally guilty of not thinking that through. And indeed, I think now the military establishment here would admit they weren't even militarily properly prepared in Britain for going into southern Iraq; that the final decisions were taken very, very late in the day.

You've said that post-9/11, the Republican realists in America had little chance to withstand the views of the neocons. Explain what you mean.

This was a bit of, if you like, an American version of Kremlinology, really, because you look back on the history of American foreign policy since the World War II, and it was very much a mainstream, "realist" foreign policy. It tended to be pretty bipartisan as well, as it was in the U.K., that it didn't really matter to the British Foreign Office for many, many years whether it was Conservative government or a Labor government. So you had this great tradition, this great corpus of received wisdom on how you should conduct yourself abroad.

What happened when George W. became president was, individually, a number of very powerful people came into the administration who came from a different, if you like, ideological cloth; who thought that America's mission in the world should be defined in a different way and executed in a different way. So we had this thing called the Project for the New American Century, if I've got that right. But even they didn't seize the Bush administration until 9/11.

In my view, if you look at George Bush from inauguration day to 9/11, it's a very mainstream, realist foreign policy with some quite new and interesting things on how you handle Russia. It's actually an interesting foreign policy in which [then-Secretary of State] Colin Powell was pretty powerful figure.

9/11 comes; demons are released; Pandora's box opens. And that also opens something else: It opens the door to the influence of the neoconservatives and others who thought like them. Was that discomforting for the British government, for the British Foreign Office, for the realists in Britain? Very discomforting. But for Tony Blair, it almost fitted perfectly with his view of the world and his way of thinking. So some people who say Tony was the neocon's neocon, you know, they're not a million miles from the truth.

The administration's view on the Middle East was very clear: Peace in Jerusalem would be gotten through Baghdad. How was that different from the British view?

There were many strands of thinking in the United States which led to the conclusion that Saddam Hussein had to be removed. One of the strands was we'd been trying to settle Israel/Palestine for years and years and years, and we've gone about it the wrong way. The right way is to turn Iraq into a democracy, to make it a kind of showpiece for the Middle East, and that will have such a benevolent effect around the area that solving Israel and the Palestinians will be much easier. So one heard through 2002, 2003, over and over again, that the road to peace between Israel and Palestine lay through Baghdad.

Now, that ran totally counter to all received wisdom in London, and, to a degree, curious enough, against Tony Blair's vision of the Middle East, because all through 2002 and afterward, he would say to George W. Bush: "If we are going to do Saddam Hussein, there are a number of things we need to have in place to help us get there. One is, try and bring in the United Nations, and the other is to try and sort out the Middle East, Israel/Palestinians in parallel." That meant effectively dealing with the intifada, which had blown up at the end of 2001, early 2002.

And effectively, Blair got absolutely nowhere on that issue, because the U.S. administration set its face. A very senior official said to me in the State Department that the U.S. on this matter had become "more Likud than Likud." So Tony Blair, for all his special relationship with George W., did not have the countervailing force to be able to overwhelm that position.

It seems in the game that was being played, the British were not winning many hands. What was going on?

This point has been put to Blair many times, and the answer he usually gives is to say that the war on terror and the relationship with the United States was not a matter of bargaining chips; this kind of debases the nature of the relationship. Of course the answer to that was, we're not talking about bargaining chips. If you are about to embark on an incredibly ambitious and risky enterprise by taking down Saddam Hussein by military means, you need to be pretty damn certain that all the right preconditions are in place. I'm not making a party political point here. But, for example, if Margaret Thatcher had found herself in the same situation, she would have -- because this was the way in which she operated -- insisted on the most meticulous planning for the aftermath as for the military campaign itself.

Now, this didn't happen in 2002. On the U.N., up to a point, we did get what we wanted. We did get the issue worked through the U.N. In the end, it blew up on us, didn't it? Came to pieces. But you cannot deny that there were months of effort to try and do this inside a U.N. context, not just because the British wanted it or the Australians wanted it or the Spaniards and the Italians wanted, who were to go ... into Iraq with United States, but because in the end, George W. was persuaded that this was in the American interest. And you never win an argument in Washington ever unless you can persuasively convince the United States that it is in its own interest to do something. And that's not just the interest of the administration, but the interest as seen by the U.S. Congress. That is one reason why Tony Blair never prevailed in his view on what should be done between Palestine and Israel.

Some say the U.S. needed the U.K. The British had tools, resources to be persuasive. One might say that Blair wasn't persuasive, that he should have been more of a bully for his own goals.

I agree with that. I've always agreed with that. Basically, if the argument had been put in a different way, the outcome would probably have been different as well, might have been different. That is to say, if the British prime minister had said to the American president, "I agree that Saddam Hussein needs to be dealt with one way or the other, and if this comes to a military operation, we would like to be with you, but we will not be able to do this unless there is an unwinding of the violence between Israel and the Palestinians, and this is agreed [to] by the United Nations Security Council by a majority, or preferably unanimously; if we don't have those two things, I'm sorry, George, I won't be able to do this with you," I actually think that this would have had a material and significant impact on the decisions taken by the United States.

I don't want to overemphasize the influence of the United Kingdom, but I start from the premise that the U.S. did not want to do this on its own. And if we had said, "We're not going to do this unless those conditions are met," sure as hell the French and Germans even less would have done it. And I wonder whether Spain, Italy and Australia would have been there. That, I think, is the heart of the matter. ...

You've said that Tony Blair's policy was to hug Americans close. ...

There was an unforeseen consequence here, and it was this: that there was an irreconcilable contradiction inside the policy of "hug them close." Blair believed very, very strongly that if Britain were to have influence in Washington, in the White House, it had to be seen almost as an unconditional ally and partner of the United States of America in public, always to be supportive, so that in private it could be candid and influential.

Trouble is, it didn't work out like that, because if you say to the United States, or to anybody, "Whatever you choose to do, I'm with you," in a [snaps fingers] flash, your leverage is gone. You can exhort; you can seek to persuade; you can do all of that. But what you can't do is say, "Hell, I'm not going to do it if you don't do what I want you to do," because you've given that card away.

So "hug them close" -- that's not a bad way of going on. But when you got down to the hard part, it meant, effectively, we could only exhort rather than actually act.

Powell's views matched those of the British. Do you see a connection between the way the British were operating and the way Powell was operating?

Yup, to a point. But I think you can take it so far and no further. Colin Powell is an honorable man. I knew him pretty well when I was in Washington, and in the end, he put service to his country and to his president before all else. I think that is admirable. People who say, "Hell, he should have resigned if he was so much in disagreement with the president's policy," I think miss the point. I think he concluded that at the end of the day, his duty and his service was to his president and his country. And I hope that is remembered in books that will be written about this episode.

The position of Britain was different. We didn't owe, if you like, the same kind of duty -- of course we didn't; we're a sovereign nation -- to the president of the United States or to the United States. What we owed to the United States was to tell it, to you, our closest allies and friends in the world, unvarnished and clearly as we saw it. And I don't think that was done.

You state that the [April 2002] Crawford meeting is where the serious discussions on Iraq began. Some feel that at this point, Blair feels that the threat of war will win the day and that to some extent, that was what the Crawford meeting was about. Do you agree?

There's a problem for me over Crawford, because there were hours and hours and hours where the prime minister and the president were alone together. ... I think Blair and Bush thought it was almost certainly going to come to war; that in order to bring Saddam down, it was going to need military action. But this wasn't quite the same thing as taking an operational decision, "We're going to go to war." I don't think it was ever that.

I have big arguments with American friends in particular about whether war was inevitable or not from even the end of December 2001 onward. I don't believe it was. So I think the commitment that Blair made to Bush at Crawford was necessary as part of the war on terror; not because of Saddam's intrinsic defects, to put it mildly, that he had to be brought down, and it would probably need to be done by military means, but not absolutely necessarily so. And the story unwound thereafter.

You feel that the British didn't quite understand the importance of [Dick] Cheney's role. Explain.

It became clear very early on in the George W. Bush administration that Cheney was going to be an incredibly powerful vice president. He had effectively chosen himself to be vice president, having been put in charge of what you call a search committee or whatever, and he assembled very rapidly a highly talented staff who dealt with national security. So you saw very early on this very powerful figure, loads of experience from the first Iraq war, plus this very, very talented staff under Lewis "Scooter" Libby.

So we all said to each other, in London, in Washington -- the embassy to London, London to the embassy -- "This looks like being the most powerful vice president since God knows when." But for a long time, it wasn't completely clear what this meant. What did it actually mean for policy?

I think the first thing that came out of this observation was that in meetings, in principals' meetings, he was very powerful, very influential. So we knew that he was having a very, very strong impact on decisions across the board, on domestic policy as well.

The other thing we knew was that he met alone with the president at least once a week. They had their sort of famous lunches. And as we got into 2002, it became more and more apparent that he was a very strong, hawkish influence in the collective decision-taking of the White House.

I think the thing that hit us most forcefully was a speech that he gave in August of 2002 to the American Veterans of Foreign Wars, which was super-hawkish in its dismissal of the U.N. and U.N. inspections, to such an extent that I was told that it even alarmed the White House; he gave another speech a week later which [was] all a bit toned down.

It wasn't until early September 2002, when Tony Blair went to Camp David to see President Bush, and Dick Cheney was there for all the talks, that finally revealed the full extent of the man's influence on the planning for Iraq. From that moment onward, we marked him and his staff very, very closely indeed. During that period, October-November 2002, [when] the detailed negotiation was going on in New York at the U.N. on what became Resolution 1441, it was so obvious that Colin Powell, the British, others were pushing this way, and there's massive pushback coming from the vice president.

I remember going to have a conversation with Scooter Libby. It must have been at the end of October 2002, right in the middle of all this, and draft resolutions were flying backward and forward, different versions. Oh, it was impossible to keep up [with] what the hell was going on in New York.

My role was trying to influence in Washington the instructions that were being sent to New York on the negotiation. I went to see Scooter, and I said, "What do you think of" variant whatever it was of the resolution, draft resolution. And he was absolutely plain. He said: "We don't think there should be another resolution at all. How many more resolutions do you want on Iraq? We've already had 14, 15, 16 or whatever it is since 1991. Do we really need another resolution to demonstrate that Saddam Hussein is a bad man who should be removed?"

So he wasn't even into discussing. And I said to him, "What do you think of this text?" He said: "I haven't looked at this text. Why do I want to look at this text? This whole thing is a waste of time."

Actually, we all now say, "Ha! Ridiculous �berhawk," and blah, blah, blah, and "Look what happened to him." But he's not 100 percent wrong. There were double-figure resolutions out there which had condemned Saddam, and the terms of which Saddam had refused to abide by. I mean, let's make it plain: I was a supporter of removing Saddam.

[After the September 2002 private meeting with Blair and Cheney at Camp David, Bush tells British aides that Blair has "cojones."] How did that statement go over? What was the feeling at that point?

From a British point of view, that was quite a good meeting as far as it went. What does one mean by that? It was simply that Bush had committed to exhaust the U.N. process before taking any decision to go to war. You see, in July, as we all went away from our summer holidays, we didn't even know that. Would the United States be prepared to try and work the issue through the Security Council?

In August, largely through the efforts of Colin Powell, he succeeded to persuade the president himself and Condoleezza Rice that this was the way to go. And I think the president had accepted it in principle already in August. In London they didn't know that. And to be frank, in Washington, we weren't sure whether the president had taken this decision. …

Blair came to Camp David to try to nail the president down to go through the U.N., and so to announce in his speech at the opening of the U.N. General Assembly a few days later. And in that immediate objective, Blair succeeded. But again, again, the path had been cleared. The door had been opened, if you like, by an internal American process beforehand. …

Of course the corollary was, "If we exhaust the U.N. process, and it didn't work, you're going to be with me, aren't you, Tony, when we go to war?" And that's what happened in the end. ...

All through the fall and early winter of 2002, the thing that made me really anxious, obsessed me almost above all else, was that in the end, the U.K. and the U.S. would have a different view of what constituted exhausting the U.N. process. I felt that firstly because there was much greater impatience [on] the American side to get this sorted out one way or another, and the U.N. was intrinsically slow and cumbersome. There was immense frustration in Washington over the slowness that it took to get Resolution 1441 through.

This anxiety, this obsession, was fueled by a realization which came from a conversation I had with somebody in the White House, that how in God's name were we going to synchronize a U.N. process which led to the reintroduction of weapons inspectors into Iraq under Hans Blix with a contingency plan for war premised on going to war at that time in January 2003? How could it work? There would have been no way in which inspectors could get in there, do that job, produce that final report on the same timetable as the contingency military plan. …

Tony Blair has another doctrine, the Tony Blair doctrine, which is that if you are seen to be seriously preparing for war, this may prove to be the best means of avoiding war. So after the passage of 1441 at the beginning of November, for a moment you thought, maybe all this stuff is going to come together and that under this pressure, Saddam Hussein will either completely cave in or be removed or forced into exile or something like that.

There was this moment when, even in Washington, people began to breathe a sigh of relief if they were against the war, and the hawks were a bit depressed by this. But this only lasted for a flicker of time, if you like, because the price of getting a unanimous Security Council resolution was ambiguity, and the ambiguity lay in what was known as the trigger for war. It was a fundamental difference between the United States on the one hand and almost everybody else on the Security Council on what constituted a trigger for war. The Americans believed that the flouting of 1441 would in and of itself provide a casus belli. Everybody else said, "No, we need another Security Council resolution actually to provide or pull the trigger for war." …

The British, we kind of tried to smother this gulf by saying: "Well, hang on a minute. Whether or not we need a second resolution" -- and in the end we did argue for one, but at the time it was not totally clear -- "we've got to come back again and debate in the Security Council Hans Blix's reports, so there will be an opportunity to decide what we have to do next." We hoped that that would cover the gap. It didn't. …

You stated that even by Bush's standards, the 2003 State of the Union address was messianic in tone. What were you hearing?

Immediately after Saddam's declaration of his weapons holdings at the beginning of December, you felt the atmosphere in Washington change. You felt the die is now cast. Unless Saddam is murdered or forced into exile, war is coming. It's coming. The war machine is now really going to happen.

And in January 2003, the traditional State of the Union speech, if there was any doubt, any doubt that the United States was not now committed to war, it was removed by the president's speech. It gave him no wiggle room at all, absent, as I've said, Saddam's voluntary departure or of his assassination.

The tone and language were of a kind that you will almost never hear in Europe -- you might hear from Tony Blair -- but it was truly messianic. It was truly good against evil; right against wrong; [the] United States, the chosen people, the instrument of God -- something, in my view, [that] goes back not just to the founding fathers but way back before then. It's deep in the American soul, and it's what distinguishes United States from most other countries in the world. And I thought to myself, that's it. That is it. This country, without now any doubt at all, is going to go to war. And that is how I reported the speech to London.

[How did the French "ambush" of Colin Powell at the U.N. change the game?]

You have to think about the background to this. … We had traveled a long way from the spontaneous expression of sympathy for the U.S. after 9/11 to where we were by late 2002, early 2003. It was a fractious relationship with France and with most of the continental European countries, except for the new members of the European Union, like Poland. …

I think the negotiation of 1441, which had personally involved Colin Powell, sometimes with the French foreign minister, [Dominique] de Villepin, that had left a lot of mutual bruises as well. …

Colin Powell was fed up because it was Martin Luther King Day, and the French were insisting on having this debate on international terrorism, I think it was, in New York. So [amid] great personal and political trouble, Powell and [British Foreign Secretary Jack] Straw found themselves at the U.N. Security Council in New York. ...

De Villepin gives a press conference, which is interpreted as a real stab in the back, particularly to the United States, particularly to Colin Powell personally, after he made all this effort to accommodate the French wish to have this debate. And de Villepin lets rip as only de Villepin can do. An old French friend of mine who used to be in the French diplomatic service used to compare de Villepin to one of these French cavalry generals who felt that if he didn't die in battle, he was shamed. That's another story.

I went into the State Department to see actually [Powell's deputy] Rich Armitage that week without fully understanding the flavor of what had happened in New York. And the air was blue. The air was blue. There was a smell of cordite in the deputy secretary of state's room. I went in; he took me in to see the secretary, and the air was even bluer there, and I suddenly realized how badly the French had played their hand on that. You could disagree with where the United States was going, and many people did, but this had been a gratuitous insult, which, at a phase that was still just diplomatic, did no good at all.

What were the consequences? I think it truly soured the relationship between the two sides of the Atlantic at a time when there was still some stuff to play for, particularly on the second resolution. That was a bad day for diplomacy.

What position did it put Powell in?

London was not, at that time, expecting to make a great deal of progress with the French, or indeed with the Germans. It was an atmospheric souring rather than a substantive development that made cooperation more difficult, I think.

Did it put Powell into the hands of hawks?

It may have reinforced that tendency. I mean, I think this is where the labels become a little bit deceptive, because I think that probably from early December onward and Saddam's statement of his weapons holdings, that in the State Department, it had become pretty clear that the time had come to start to prepare to put the United States in the best diplomatic position if in the end, finally, the president ticked off the war box. I think that was the atmosphere at the time.

In late January, early February 2003, Blair came to Washington to delay the war. Some feel that the president was merely pacifying the prime minister by that point.

On the eve of Tony Blair's visit to the White House at the end of January, there were two issues that were of great importance to the British. One was, if it was going to be war, we, the Brits, because we'd started our military preparations so late, wanted a delay if possible; I think at the time we were looking at late February instead of whenever it was, or early March.

The other thing we wanted was to get the United States onboard for pressing for a second Security Council resolution that would enable war to go ahead within a U.N. framework, if that's what it came to. I remember sending a report to London on the eve of Blair's arrival saying, "Neither of these things are in the bag [with] the United States, so you're going to have to make the case to Bush and hope to win him over." …

The one thing that I think the hawks were frantically frustrated about was the risk that more and more diplomatic delay would lead to a point where, militarily, the invasion was prejudiced, because there was all this stuff about the hot weather coming on and you had to choose this window. And apparently the Arabs, particularly the Saudis, were saying, if you're going to do this, for God's sake, get this over with as fast as possible, because this is going to be very dangerous.

So there was no enthusiasm in Washington for a second resolution. But the very people who were going to accompany the United States to Iraq if it came to war -- it wasn't just us; it was Spain; it was the Italians; and it was John Howard, who was in Australia … -- all saying, "If we can get the second resolution, it's going to help a lot with our domestic opinion."

And in the end, that did bring the United States onboard. The president, in the press conference after that meeting with Blair, the end of January, did not display -- how can one put it? -- extravagant enthusiasm for a second resolution. But he didn't say no. And in the end, the Americans put their shoulder to the wheel. The fact that your diplomacy, their diplomacy and our diplomacy proved wholly ineffectual in the end is another matter. ...

Around the same time, Rumsfeld makes a statement about discounting old Europe. How do you view this?

I can reduce dinner parties in London, and even more so in Paris, to stunned silence when I say I can understand why Don Rumsfeld said what he said. The very worst construction has been put on these remarks in Europe. The background to all of this was, as I've said, a very fractious transatlantic relationship, particularly, but not only, with France and Germany. But the new entrants to the European Union, led by Poland, were much more amenable to the American position.

So it seems fairly obvious that if you're going to talk about Europe from the American side of the Atlantic, you're going to make a distinction between the old Europeans and the new Europeans. It's bloody obvious. But people got terribly steamed up about this, and I never attached a gigantic amount of importance to it.

Then there was this thing about Rumsfeld being very dismissive of the British military contribution and effectively saying, "We don't need the Brits if we're going to do this," and people in London got terribly hurt by this. … Do you honestly think that the U.S. secretary of defense is going to get up and say, "Jesus Christ, if the British army is not there, we can't do it"? Of course he's not going to say that. He's going to say, "We can do it, whatever happens; we don't need the British there." And actually, in context, what other answer could an American defense secretary give? By that time, the United States was committed to war. So with hindsight, these incidents have acquired enormous importance. I think they're relatively insignificant.

In March 2003 Blair is up for a vote in Parliament. Bush calls saying, "Don't lose your government." What happened, from your perspective?

Of course Bush and Blair had this conversation after I'd left Washington, so I wasn't professionally privy to what was going on. But there was a lot of concern in Washington about the British parliamentary process, because the Bush administration had got the resolutions it needed through both houses of Congress, and relatively early in the fall of 2002, if I remember rightly. So they're not worried about Congress anymore.

I kept on saying to people in Washington, "Look, the prime minister's going to have to get through the House of Commons on this, and if he loses a vote in the House of Commons, the very first example of regime change that you will experience will be in London." … That was a very powerful argument for getting the Americans onboard for the second resolution at the U.N. …

In the end, he won quite handsomely in the Commons, but it wasn't clear at the time. And I think the context, the framework for that conversation between Bush and Blair was to try to come up with some sort of solution that would not put Tony Blair at terminal political risk.

And that was?

... I gather the president's offer to Blair was, "Well, don't take part in the active invasion, but help us passively, logistically, and maybe in the end with the peacekeeping afterward." ...

But whatever you think of Tony Blair -- people approve and disapprove -- he has courage. People may say it's just willful stubbornness. Well, OK, but he did have courage. He could have backed down. He didn't back down. And in the end, he won the vote.

When you look retrospectively, why was it impossible for Blair or for our administration to understand just how dire the postwar situation was?

I was not unique in telling the British government that planning for postwar, planning for post-Saddam, was a black hole. I mean, there were plenty of other people doing the same thing. … So when you talk about hammering away on this issue, there's lots of hammers hammering. And I have to say to you, I don't know what the complete answer is. Sometimes you'll hear from people who were in the government at the time the excuse that they'd had assurances from President Bush that everything was OK. But, you know, in serious government, that is not an answer. Even if it is your closest ally and your brother in arms, you do the stuff yourself. ...

I suspect that although there was a lot of planning going on, it wasn't properly pulled together. And in London, I think at the highest echelons of government, there was such a concern to keep public opinion, House of Commons opinion, Labor Party opinion, Cabinet opinion on the side for possible war, that it absorbed so much political effort and stamina, that actually there was very little left for saying to the machine, "Get cracking on a really detailed plan for what we will do in Basra and the south if that is what it comes to," and also to press upon the Americans the need to do A, B, C and D. The instructions never went out. They never went out, so that when Saddam fell, the mayhem and chaos that followed were a direct result of this.

But that may not be the whole story. And until we have a full public inquiry over here -- which we may never -- I have to say we will not know why it was. ...

Lessons learned?

Lessons learned? If you fight a war on the basis of global values, the very first thing you have to ask yourself is, whose values? Because values that are asserted as global are very often no more than your own. And that is one thing that has happened here.

The other is, always remember that war is fought for political reasons, and winning the war is therefore only a preparation for winning the peace. That we've gotten in Afghanistan and in Iraq.

And thirdly, democracy as it is practiced in the United States, in the United Kingdom, cannot be transplanted like a lung or a heart to other cultures and to other countries, [with] totally different traditions and totally different stages of development. ...

And the final one is the good old classic: Beware of what you wish for, because democracy in Palestine has given us Hamas; democracy in Iraq has given us a Shi'a-dominated government that gives very little room for the Sunni. ... And remember also, irony of ironies, one of the countries which is more democratic and has more elections is Iran, a member of the axis of evil.

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posted march 24, 2008

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