In early December 2009 former British Prime Minister Tony Blair conducted an interview with the BBC in which he said he believed in invading Iraq and overthrowing Saddam even if he didn’t have WMD. Blair thought that Saddam was a threat to the Middle East, that he had never complied with United Nations resolutions for 12 years, and had used WMD on his own people. Blair also saw the invasion of Iraq as a way to influence the struggle over the future of Islam between moderates and radicals. He finished by saying that if not for WMD, he would’ve come up with another argument for overthrowing Saddam. The former prime minister’s comments were quite controversial, and started a heated debate in England, which is in the middle of the Chilcot Inquiry into the causes and consequences of the Iraq war. Hans Blix, the former chief of U.N. weapons inspector from 2002-2003 joined the discussion with an editorial in the Guardian on December 14 entitled, “Blair sold Iraq on WMD, but only regime change adds up,” arguing that Blair’s comments reveal that the United Kingdom was more interested in overthrowing Iraq’s government than disarming it.
In late 2002 England and Secretary of State Colin Powell finally convinced President George Bush to go to the United Nations and call for renewed inspections. British officials had continually told Washington that the price for their participation in any military action was a new U.N. resolution. Blix believes that the U.S. and U.K. were hoping that Iraq would obstruct the inspectors like they did in the 1990s, and that would lead to the U.N. authorizing war. That was actually exactly how British officials tried to sell the U.N. route to the Bush administration. For example, the British Ambassador to the U.S. Christopher Meyer had lunch with Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz on March 17, 2002 and said that tripping up Iraq in weapons inspections would be a way to gain international support for regime change. England was gambling that going the U.N. route would provide the rational for war, but ended up losing.
The U.K. and U.S. got Resolution 1441 passed in November 2002, which brought the inspectors back into Iraq. The problem was that they did not turn up any WMD. Inspectors for instance, went to 202 suspected sites by the end of December and reported no evidence of an active WMD or nuclear program. In fact, they were running out of places to go, and asked the U.S. to provide more specific intelligence on where these illicit programs might be. Baghdad also ended up cooperating more as the inspections progressed, and the problems that did arise, to Blix at least, were not serious enough for the U.N. Security Council to vote for war.
The real issue was that the war plans of the U.S. and England were moving ahead at the same time that the U.N. inspectors were undermining the reasons for the invasion. Former Ambassador Christopher Meyer told the Chilcot Inquiry, in early December 2009 that:
The real problem, which I did draw several times to the attention of London, was that the contingency military timetable had been decided before the UN inspectors went in under Hans Blix. So you found yourself in a situation in the autumn of 2002 where you could not synchronize the military timetable with the inspection timetable. The American military had been given instructions to prepare for war. Initially it was ‘we want you ready by January.’ … January was never realistic and in the end it went back to March. … So the result … was to turn resolution 1441 on its head. Because 1441 had been a challenge to Saddam Hussein, agreed unanimously, to prove his innocence. But because you could not synchronize the programs, somehow or other, program, preparation for war, inspections, you had to short-circuit the inspection process by finding the notorious smoking gun. And suddenly, because of that, the unforgiving nature of the military timetable, you found yourself scrabbling for the smoking gun, which was another way of saying ‘it’s not that Saddam has to prove that he’s innocent, we’ve now bloody well got to try and prove that he’s guilty.
The U.S. had set the date for the war to begin in March 2003, and that’s exactly when they demanded the inspections end, and the invasion began. Blix believes that this is more proof that the U.S. and U.K. were not interested in disarmament and the inspectors doing their work, but were rather looking for some evidence of WMD to get to their ultimate goal of regime change. The U.N. however, was not turning up any serious incriminating material. This should have made the British and American intelligence agencies and governments re-evaluate their claims about Iraq’s weapons program, but they actually argued that not finding any WMD was proof that Iraq was hiding them. This was largely due to the fact that Saddam had never complied with the U.N. in the 1990s, so Washington and London were convinced that Iraq must have been hiding something again. The rest of the Security Council though, wanted the inspections to continue, and were not convinced of the arguments for war. When England tried to push for a second resolution they failed.
Blix believes that England was caught in a Catch-22. They would only join the U.S. invasion if the United Nations authorized it, which required the inspectors returning to Iraq to look for WMD, but they didn’t find any, and that undermined the rational for war. The result was that the Security Council refused to support military action. The British Attorney General Lord Goldsmith in turn, said the war was illegal as late as March 7, 2003, and only changed his mind after a phone call from Blair who argued that it was legitimate due to previous U.N. resolutions. As former Ambassador Meyer told the Chilcot Inquiry, “We – the Americans, the British – have never really recovered from that because of course there was no smoking gun,” i.e. WMD, which the war had been sold on. Blair was committed no matter what though, as his recent comments point out. With the invasion set for March, the inspections and United Nations ended up hindering England’s plans rather than assisting them.
Blix, Hans, “Blair sold Iraq on WMD, but only regime change adds up,” Guardian, 12/14/09
Burrough, Bryan, Peretz, Evgenia, Rose, David and Wise, David, “Path To War,” Vanity Fair, May 2004
Gledhill, Ruth and Brown, David, “Blair ‘would have gone to war without Iraqi WMD,’” Times of London, 12/12/09
Meyer, Ambassador Christopher, “CONFIDENTIAL AND PERSONAL,” British Embassy, Washington, 3/18/02
Norton-Taylor, Richard, “Chilcot inquiry: US said Iraqis would welcome invasion,” Guardian, 12/1/09
Tran, Mark, “Iraq war inquiry key witnesses: Sir Christopher Meyer,” Guardian, 12/9/09