Section 3.1 of the Chilcot Report documented the United Kingdom’s continued problems with its Iraq strategy at the start of the 2000s. London realized that international opinion had turned against its containment policy of sanctions and demanding weapons inspectors return to Iraq, yet it had no alternatives. Then 9/11 happened, opening the door to advocates of regime change within the new Bush administration. The Blair government initially believed that it still didn’t have to change, but finally decided that getting rid of Saddam had to be on the table. That was the start of London following Washington for the rest of the decade.
The Blair government started the new decade wanting the same Iraq policy as it had in the 1990s with only a little modification. In March 2001 for instance, Prime Minister Tony Blair’s private secretary wrote a position paper that England should move towards smart sanctions that would only target military imports, focus upon Iraq’s human rights record, and maintain the no fly zones over southern and northern Iraq. It was hoped that limiting the scope of sanctions and talking about Baghdad’s horrible record of abuses London could win back international support for its containment strategy, which had suffered in the decade since it was started. The problem was that there was no real support for England outside of the United States, and that was about to change as well. Since entering office Blair had come to realize that the UK couldn’t maintain its Iraq policy, yet he wouldn’t change. The PM still saw Saddam Hussein as a regional threat who had WMD, and his advisers could think of nothing new but tweaking containment, which was a losing proposition given world opinion.
9/11 would change everything starting in Washington. After the terrorist attacks Blair immediately said that the UK would stand with the United States in the war on terror. He was immediately informed that might mean regime change in Iraq. On 9/11 for instance, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Richard Myers to consider bombing Iraq. The secretary’s deputy Paul Wolfowitz also advocated for striking Iraq as the first stage in the response to terrorism. Vice President Dick Cheney however said that Iraq was a threat, but that it was not the right time to deal with it. At a meeting at Camp David President Bush’s advisers took a vote and decide that Afghanistan would be the first focus of the United States not Iraq. Rumsfeld and neoconservatives such as Wolfowitz had been advocating attacking Iraq since the start of the Bush administration. The president had not decided upon a policy however before 9/11 happened. The attack on New York and Washington opened the door for them to more vigorously advocate for their position. They had a sympathetic leader in Bush who believed that Saddam had some connection to Al Qaeda. The Camp David vote would not end the issue.
England would continue to worry about the pro-war camp in Washington, but didn’t know that Bush would join them. On September 15 the UK Embassy warned that 9/11 would mean those wanting regime change would push their agenda more. It didn’t realize that the president was part of that group. On September 26, he ordered Rumsfeld to review military plans for Iraq, and that on November 21 he told the secretary to revise them. That would be the origins of the 2003 invasion. By the end of December Central Command head General Tommy Franks would present the first war plans to the president. Blair had said he would support the United States. It would take several months before he realized that would mean backing the United States going to war with Iraq.
London also worried about Washington’s motives. Bush later said that 9/11 meant that the U.S. could not leave Saddam alone because he might give WMD to terrorists like Al Qaeda. His own intelligence agencies and counter terror chief told him there was no connection between Iraq and bin Laden, but he wasn’t satisfied. He continued to believe the two had links and was bolstered by Rumsfeld and increasingly Cheney and others who pushed that narrative. UK intelligence found no Iraq link to 9/11, and no sign that it would give WMD to terrorists. It was also concerned that going after Iraq would undermine fighting Al Qaeda. If bin Laden was behind the terrorist attacks on the U.S., and Iraq was not involved why was that the main argument of Washington? More importantly, if going after Saddam would derail the war on the terrorist group that was responsible, what would be the value of changing course? Those questions would never be asked, yet Blair stuck with his position that the alliance with the United States was paramount.
The UK initially thought that it could moderate the United States on Iraq. On September 20, Blair told Bush that the two needed to take time to see whether it could build a case against Iraq’s involvement in 9/11 and that they should focus upon Afghanistan first. England then pushed for a return to the United Nations to pass smart sanctions on Baghdad. On October 29, the UK representative to the U.N. Jeremy Greenstock wrote that a long term Iraq strategy needed to be formulated with the U.S. He said that would mean choosing between the status quo and trying to get weapons inspectors back into Iraq or supporting military action. Blair eventually realized that 9/11 meant that containment of Iraq was obsolete, but that would take a long time. In the meantime, he still thought that the UK could continue upon the same path with regards to Iraq. He was completely wrong.
The changes in Washington finally led to a real debate about Iraq strategy in London. Blair’s chief of staff Jonathan Powell pushed for new inspectors and supporting an uprising against Saddam. The Special Intelligence Service said that opposition parties should be backed in the hopes that they could replace Saddam through a coup. The Foreign Office advocated for increasing containment. By December, Blair decided to back Bush and said regime change wasn’t out of the question, but needed a smart plan. The PM believed that the case against Iraq had to be developed over time using inspectors and the United Nations so that international support could be generated. Blair wasn’t thinking of an invasion at the time. He was still pushing containment, but offered military action if that failed. This was the first step towards the UK’s involvement in the Iraq war even though Downing Street didn’t realize it at the time. It was still thinking in terms of its old policy, but in Blair’s insistence that London stand with Washington he would follow Bush’s lead from now on.