The Blair government needed a legal ruling to go to war with Iraq. That centered around whether a second U.N. resolution was needed to authorize force against Saddam. The man that determined that was Lord Goldsmith the U.K. Attorney General who gave a convoluted opinion on the matter.
On November 12, 2002, Foreign Minister Jack Straw called Lord Goldsmith about his legal opinion on Iraq. Goldsmith said he needed to study U.N. Resolution 1441 that returned weapons inspectors to see whether non-cooperation could lead to war. Straw said he believed 1441 meant Iraq had to comply or else. Goldsmith disagreed saying only the Security Council could determine whether Iraq was in material breach or not.
Two days later the cabinet met over 1441. Straw said that 1441 authorized military action without a second resolution on the use of force. November 7 the British embassy in Washington D.C. said American hawks believed the smallest breach of 1441 would justify war. A Foreign Office paper said the Bush administration was already thinking of 1441 violations before inspections had even begun. This worried some Blair advisers such as United Nations ambassador Jeremy Greenstock who believed a second resolution was necessary but that the Americans wouldn’t wait. The Foreign Office warned that there was no consensus within the Security Council over the definition of a breach and that one single incident wouldn’t start a debate on a second resolution but rather a pattern of non-cooperation by Iraq would have to be established. This was the new dilemma Downing Street faced. There was disagreement over whether a second resolution was necessary. If one was, London had to build up support within the Security Council to get one passed. Plus the Bush administration wanted war now rather than later. As usual, Blair thought things would work out in his favor despite this daunting set of circumstances.
On January14 Lord Goldsmith drafted his opinion on 1441. He said that a second U.N. resolution would be needed to authorize the use of force against Iraq. Self-defense and humanitarian intervention could not justify military action. Blair ignored the draft and said he would look into self-defense as a justification for overthrowing Saddam. He would also say publicly that a second resolution was unnecessary. He even told his cabinet that on January 16. He was supported by Foreign Minister Straw. Blair later told the Chilcot Inquiry that the legal opinion on 1441 was unresolved and therefore he could say what he thought about a second resolution. This fit Blair’s pattern. First, he believed that he could persevere in any situation on Iraq. Lord Goldsmith might have told him another U.N. resolution was needed but he thought he could overcome that. Second, he kept his cabinet completely in the dark about what was going on about Iraq. He never told it he’d already committed to war with Bush and he didn’t tell them about Goldsmith’s early view on 1441.
Lord Goldsmith kept changing his legal opinion. On February 27 he told government officials a second U.N. resolution was required but then said a case could be made that not following 1441 could lead to U.N. Resolution 678 and justify war. 678 was the original authorization for the Gulf War. Then on March 7 Goldsmith gave his opinion to Blair. He said that a material breach of 1441 could be a violation of 678 but only the Security Council could determine that. He therefore said a second resolution would be the best course to follow. Then he changed his mind on March 14 saying a second resolution wasn’t needed.
This came just in time as on March 17 Straw said France would block any use of force in the Security Council. The Blair and Bush governments would claim that Iraq violated 1441 and being members of the Security Council they could determine that this authorized the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. That meant Blair failed once again at getting his policy through because he consistently said he needed the United Nations to gain support for war. Now he didn’t get it. He’d already thrown in with Bush however and said he would back him no matter what. He therefore kept his positive world view that what he was doing what was right. Iraq and the U.K. would suffer the consequences.
The Iraq Inquiry, “The Report of the Iraq Inquiry,” 7/6/16
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