At the end of 2002 into January 2003 the Blair administration went through a sea change in its Iraq policy. In the previous period Prime Minister Tony Blair had his one and only victory in the entire Iraq War when he convinced President George Bush to go to the United Nations for a new resolution on weapons inspections. After that however the discussion immediately shifted to invasion.
In November 2002 Iraq said it would comply with United Nations Resolution 1441 for new weapons inspections but London was skeptical of that. A British intelligence report said that Baghdad would treat the new round of inspections like the previous ones in the 1990s, meaning it would hide its programs. That was because Saddam believed that WMD was integral to him staying in power and therefore he would never give them up. The United States took the same position. Blair’s foreign policy adviser Sir David Manning told National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice that this would eventually ensure international support for action against Iraq. In fact, France and Russia had voiced skepticism that anything the U.N. did would justify an invasion.
That same month was the first time that London started seriously discussing overthrowing Saddam. Blair told his cabinet that Resolution 1441 meant that military action could be taken without a second one if Iraq was found in material breach. Foreign Secretary Jack Straw however disagreed saying another resolution would be needed. London was also worried that the U.S. would jump the gun and start a war over any little violation Iraq might make, which was confirmed by the U.K. ambassador to the U.S. Sir Christopher Meyer. Despite this Blair promised America military support for any action against Saddam. The prime minister told Bush he believed that the inspectors would find something and that would be the trigger for military action. Blair’s top priorities were to disarm Iraq and stand by the United States. He believed the U.N. would not only provide a reason to move against Iraq, but that he could talk it into authorizing it as well. This proved to be wishful thinking, something Blair suffered from during the entire lead up to the 2003 invasion.
On December 7, 2002 Iraq provided a 7,000 page weapons declaration to the U.N. inspectors that said it had no WMD. The U.K. and the U.S. both said that was a patented lie. Bush thought this proved that Iraq was not only unwilling to cooperate with the international community, but that it would not disarm, and that therefore the invasion was inevitable. While there were many problems with Iraq’s declaration, Baghdad was not lying. It had no active WMD stockpiles or programs. The problem was the attitude of London and Washington was shaped by the 1990s inspections when Iraq actively sought to hide what it was doing. They therefore believed Iraq would never come clean about its weapons programs. Blair however thought the inspection would uncover some WMD and allow for the overthrow of Saddam. Bush on the other hand, never had confidence in the U.N. and only agreed on going to it to support Blair who said it was necessary to win domestic support on Iraq.
Bush and Blair were not helped by the U.N. inspectors. On December 19 for example, the head inspectors Hans Blix and Mohammed al-Baradei reported to the Security Council. Blix said no smoking gun was found, but then said that didn’t mean Iraq wasn’t hiding something. He demanded Baghdad turn over more information saying there were inconsistencies with its 2003 declaration and its old ones from the 1990s. El Baradei however said no nuclear weapons program was discovered. His questions focused upon what Iraq had done in the 1980s. The inspectors would ultimately be proved right. Not all of Iraq’s paper work added up because it had secretly destroyed all its remaining WMD and not documented it, but there was no WMD in Iraq. Again, this didn’t matter because Bush and Blair already believed Iraq was hiding what is was doing.
January 16, 2003 Blair had his first cabinet debate on Iraq. Blair said that the inspectors needed more time, and a second U.N. resolution would be necessary for using force if Iraq didn’t comply. Foreign Secretary Straw said there was a good chance that a second resolution would pass, but then claimed one wasn’t necessary. Blair did not tell his ministers that he was already contemplating military deployments to the Middle East and had promised Bush England would stay by the U.S. no matter what. The Chilcot Inquiry would come down hard on Blair for taking so long to talk with his cabinet about Iraq. Especially because he didn’t tell them he was going to join the invasion. The Inquiry criticized Blair for holding almost all his discussions on Iraq with a small circle of advisers and not getting a wider range of opinions and including more of his cabinet. Since Blair wanted to follow Bush’s lead that probably wouldn’t have mattered.
The Iraq Inquiry, “The Report of the Iraq Inquiry,” 7/6/16
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