Crawford: ‘We’re With You’

In April 2002, a British official who had accompanied Tony Blair on a visit to George W Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas, said the then prime minister wanted and needed to offer key words of reassurance to the United States president that went beyond the ‘shoulder to shoulder’ promise that had been given immediately after 9-11. In private, Blair simply told Bush “We’re with you.”

 “We know that [Saddam] has stockpiles of major amounts of chemical and biological weapons..”  

On his way to Crawford, Blair gave an interview to NBC News. He was asked why he was so concerned about Iraq in terms of its chemical, biological and nuclear weapons? He looked at the American interviewer and gave a clear, unequivocal and direct answer: “We know that [Saddam] has stockpiles of major amounts of chemical and biological weapons..”

That however was not the information which the UK’s Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) had sent to the then Prime Minister just over two weeks earlier.

The intelligence assessment on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) stated that any stocks it did have were likely to be small. A briefing to the Foreign Office 10 days later also said that new intelligence had not identified a threat inside Iraq that would justify any invasion.

A day after the ranch meeting, in the George Bush Snr Presidential Library, Blair’s private promise to GW, or at least some of it, went public. He said the “international community” that he’d spoken of in a speech in Chicago in 1999, had meant “their” problem is “our” problem and that the attack on New York “was an attack on all of us.”

Afghanistan and the Taliban were name-checked, so was Kosovo, Serbia, and Al-Qaida, and the Cold War.

However Blair’s next reference was unambiguous and plain. “We must be prepared to act where terrorism or weapons of mass destruction (WMD) threaten us.” He added : “If necessary the action should be military and again, if necessary and justified, it should involve regime change.” He said that leaving Iraq to develop WMD was “not an option”. Near the close of his speech, Blair said that when America was fighting for values shared by the UK and the international community “however tough, we fight with her.”

Come What May

When the Iraq Inquiry Report is finally published next week, the exact point at which Tony Blair committed the UK to taking part in the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, will be one of the central findings eagerly trawled for. The report will need to explain the difference between what Blair and senior figures in his government were being initially told by intelligence chiefs, and what was being said in public. 

The words coming in did not match those going out … and they should have.

Senior directors inside the UK’s Defence Intelligence Staff (DIS) were being told that what the PM was saying in public could not be supported by the available intelligence. Some staff wanted to know where their reports were going, and how high up the government they were being distributed. Some 14 years on, there is an expectation that next week they will finally have some kind of answer, even if it’s not a definitive one.

So what exactly did ‘We’re with you’ mean? 

Did it mean “We’re going to war with you’? 

 From Blair’s own oral testimony, made in public to the Iraq Inquiry panel, the commitment to Bush may have been earlier than the Texas assurance given in 2002. Blair was asked if regime change in Iraq had been a UK government policy? His answer – which the report will decode – said “All the way through … if it became the only way of dealing with this issue [Iraq and Saddam] then we were going to be up for that.”

Manning… believed Blair had seen an international route, through the United Nations, and that wasn’t necessarily war.  

Less than two months after Crawford, Blair asked key military aides to look at some options for UK military involvement. The timing wasn’t accidental. The US Central Command in Florida was already advancing its own plans. Sir David Manning, his most valued foreign policy adviser, said that when he looked back at Crawford, he believed Blair had seen an international route, through the United Nations, and that wasn’t necessarily war. But if the UN didn’t deliver, then Manning believed Blair had made a commitment to regime change.

Sir John Chilcot’s years of deliberations, spread over thousands of pages of the long-awaited analysis, will need to decide one way or another if Blair’s early promises contained any viable conditional, and if so, was it ever followed up with any real force.

The former UK ambassador in Washington DC, Sir Christopher Meyer, claimed Blair had a bottom line that read “Come what may, we’ll be with you.” Meyer believed Blair wanted to be in a strong position to influence the Americans – and that meant, according to Meyer, Blair being “discreet” about backing regime change.

Chilcot’s difficulties on this issue alone are substantial. In these early meetings, according to Manning, there were few advisers invited to attend, most of the meetings were one-on-one with no official notes available. Manning in his oral evidence put it bluntly: he could not be “entirely clear what degree of convergence was, if you like, signed in blood.”

Manning’s hesitation is a luxury that Chilcott and his team do not have. The wide terms of reference set out by the then prime minister, Gordon Brown, in July 2009, specified an examination of the period 2001 till the end of 2009 “embracing the run-up to the conflict in Iraq, the military action, and its aftermath.”

The task set was wider than all the previous investigations into the Iraq war, including those conducted in the US. The Inquiry’s report is expected to make conclusions on the way decisions were made and what consequent actions were taken; it is supposed to establish what happened and what lessons can be learned.

Chilcot, if it is to succeed as a landmark report, will have to reveal the truth, the whole truth and everything that happened to get to that truth.

9/11 to The Axis of Evil

It will begin with Downing Street’s initial concern that the White House and the US Department of State would react to the horrors of 9-11 by doing “something irresponsible”. Looking at Blair’s first briefing with his security advisers, which included the then head of MI5, Stephen Lander, and the chair of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), John Scarlett, will be pivotal.

The assumed dialogue that took place in Crawford in the spring of 2002 between Bush and Blair suggests that what Blair was being told by Lander and Scarlett, only hours after 9-11, had been forgotten or conveniently misplaced. The analysis by MI5 and the JIC said the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon were unlikely to be sponsored or organised by any foreign government. Lander and Scarlett backed the assumptions of their US counterparts – this was the work of Al-Qaida and that it’s leader, Osama Bin Laden was to be found in Afghanistan.

If Chilcot follows his brief to the letter, and has had the necessary co-operation from Washington, the report will contain an analysis – and crucially evidence – of what was happening at the highest level inside the Bush administration in the immediate days that followed 9-11.

That means Chilcot will look at the period when the sphere of blame expanded to include not just Al-Qaida and other known terrorist organisation, but to governments suspected of links to them. The US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, knew retribution and revenge was on the agenda and his military experience on how that should happen was valued. But around Bush were those with different, more militant, voices – Dick Cheney, the Vice President, the Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz.

If this wasn’t a declaration of war, it was close to it.  

When Cheney joined Bush’s ticket in the summer of 2000 he began offering the campaign advice that the links between WMD and terrorist organisations should be highlighted. Within days of 9-11, Blair was in Washington and being privately briefed that Afghanistan would be targeted. A US bombing campaign kicked off quickly in October 2001.

Chilcot may speculate, if his inquiry team have been given the necessary access, on what Blair knew in advance of Bush’s ‘State of the Union’ speech that was delivered in January 2002.

If Blair’s shoulder-to-shoulder assurance had force, or a ‘blood oath’ was taken in good faith, then however remote a State-of-the-Union (SOTU) speech looks to a UK government inquiry, what it contained will have consequences felt through many chapters of Chilcot’s lengthy analysis.

Bush’s speechwriter, Michael Gerson, knocked out a late-night first draft of the SOTU words in his West Wing office. It was being looked at in the Oval Office just ahead of the Christmas holiday. Gerson, a committed Christian like the president, knew the focus needed to go beyond Afghanistan. In Bob Woodward’s book Plan of Attack”, Gerson is described as contacting the conservative author, David Frum, then part of the White House staff, to come up with “a sentence or two summing up the case for going after Iraq.”

Had Bush and Blair discussed Iraq in any detail ahead of the State of the Union? 

Frum assumed the White House wanted to establish a link between Saddam’s regime and 9-11 and mentioned Iraq in a nexus of states that were comfortable with sponsored terrorism. Frum described the network as an “axis of hatred” – a term that resonated with the Axis powers of WWII. Gerson changed the words to “axis of evil”.

The State of the Union speech was just a partial disclosure: secret war planning for attacks on Iraq were already advanced. North Korea, Iran and Iraq were grouped together in the “axis of evil” that posed “a grave and growing danger.”

If this wasn’t a declaration of war, it was close to it.

The New Language of War

A month after the State of the Union, the prospect of war was already high on the agenda of the UK cabinet. The Inquiry report may reveal just how high, how potent, how divided. It may also reveal the feedback that was coming back to London through diplomatic, rather than just military channels about how determined Bush was to go to war in Iraq.

If Chilcot looks at this new language of war – and rumour suggests the report has – the criticism may be justifiably brutal.  

Christopher Meyer has described meetings with Paul Wolfowitz where the “political cost” of standing alongside the US was explained. Meyer in his book, DC Confidential, wrote : “Attacking Iraq would be a tough sell in Britain and in continental Europe. There had to be a strategy for building international support. So what was needed was a clever plan which convinced people there was a legal basis for toppling Saddam and that the US was taking into account international opinion.”

Meyer here, perhaps accidentally, sounds like a marketing executive “selling” a conflict, building a slick sales strategy. If Chilcot looks at this new language of war – and rumour suggests the report has – the criticism may be justifiably brutal.

One of the many reasons for the delays in the Inquiry’s report is that US ownership of the Bush-Blair correspondence compromised the permission Chilcot needed. Despite lengthy pushes to secure access and a freedom request to publish key correspondence, how this private sales strategy for the war panned out may yet remain secret. Proof, in the form of hard written evidence, will be needed for the report to state categorically just what Blair promised “in blood” and when. Blair is on record stating Meyer and other’s descriptions are “myth” and that his commitments were always conditional.

Following Crawford there was a double agenda shared between Downing Street and the Bush White House that is expected to be picked apart by the Inquiry. After 9-11 there was a sustained PR exercise that sold Iraq as a brutal dictatorship that had tried to develop its own nuclear weapons, killed and gassed its own citizens (in Halabja), invaded neighbouring countries, disregarded human rights, and by- passed the demands of the United Nations.

By mid -2002 the UN was being pressurised to target Iraq and its assumed WMD. The diplomatic and military backdrop was that US plans for an invasion were perhaps already advanced. Number 10 may have known how advanced. Sir Richard Dearlove, the head of MI6, had been in Washington for a series of briefings. Again, the Inquiry’s report will be eagerly trawled for evidence on this. Manning’s people had written their own assessment called the ‘Iraq Options Paper’.

WMD and the Dodgy Dossier

As part of its remit, the Chilcot team may want drill into the claims made by the former head of the DIS’s nuclear, biological and chemical section, Brian Jones, that “US military planning for action against Iraq was proceeding in a political vacuum” and that “No effort was being made to create favourable political conditions for an invasion nor was there planning to deal with its aftermath.”

According to Jones, in his book Failing Intelligence, forthe latter part of 2002 Number 10 were aware that those who mattered in the Bush administration cared little about meeting Britain’s conditions that related to the involvement of the UN. Chilcot and his team, if it was deemed realistic, must have at least tried to identifying the time-frame when the initial optimism for being able to change Bush’s unilateral position and keeping Britain on-side for an invasion, changed to a with-us-or-against-us stance.

Was there an operation, as some insiders have suggested, that tried to “prepare public opinion” in the UK for inevitable military action in Iraq? The Inquiry’s findings may include an evaluation of this effective “advanced marketing” of a war.

In August of 2002 Blair and Bush spoke on the phone. The subject in play was two aggressive speeches by Cheney that said war was now almost inevitable because there was “no doubt” that Saddam possessed WMD. The consequence? US troops were already arriving in Kuwait.

The Inquiry Report is expected to look behind Blair’s request around this time that a dossier on Iraq’s WMD be prepared. Was Blair’s order meant to be an intelligence-led evaluation of Saddam’s WMD, or an instruction to positively describe the existence of something that may or not be there?