Alastair Campbell at the Chilcot Iraq Inquiry: the gaping hole

It’s disappointing that the Chilcot Inquiry didn’t focus relentlessly on the gaping hole in Alastair Campbell’s defence of his and Blair’s record in Iraq, summed up here:

“When it came to it, when the diplomatic process clearly was not going to resolve the issue, post [UN Security Council resolution] 1441 and when the French pulled the plug, then military action became the only means of response.” [Transcript, Campbell evidence to Chilcot, p.41, lines 17-20]

This grossly misrepresents what happened.  The diplomatic process (i.e. the UN weapons inspection backed up by UN threats of force if Iraq failed to cooperate with it) could still have “resolved the issue” if the premature and illegal US-UK attack on Iraq hadn’t pre-empted it.  A sizeable majority of the Security Council wanted to give the inspectors more time, for which the inspectors themselves had asked. The transcript of President Chirac’s famous TV interview shows that France never “pulled the plug” (i.e. never said “never”) as UK ministers have subsequently repeatedly claimed – a deeply misleading excuse that Alastair Campbell has now repeated. Blair would have been fully justified in disengaging from the US military action, even at the last moment, on the grounds that diplomacy and the UN weapons inspectors still had a chance of resolving the issue without blood needing to be spilled.  The indictment against Blair (and his cabinet colleagues) is that the war was not the last resort.  Campbell, in his evidence, wrongly and repeatedly said in effect that it was.

Alastair CampbellIt’s interesting that Alastair Campbell (for whom in many ways I have a lot of respect, perhaps perversely) carefully avoided basing his allegations about the French position on the famous TV interview given by President Chirac on 10 March 2003, a few days before the US, UK and a few others abandoned the diplomatic effort and went to war:  an interview that has constantly been misquoted and misinterpreted ever since, as the transcript shows.  Instead, Campbell referred to secret Anglo-French talks which he had attended at the time.  Without being able to see the record of these talks, and being unable to know even who took part in them, none of us is in a position to question Campbell’s assertion that in the talks the French defined their position in a way that made it fruitless either to give the inspectors more time to complete their work or to hope that if the inspection definitively failed, the Security Council would be prepared to authorise military action against Iraq in order to compel compliance with the Council’s own mandatory resolutions, without a French veto or No vote.  All we can say is that as late as 10 March, the French President set out his government’s position in the famous television interview at considerable length, in exhaustive and subtle detail:  and nothing that he said indicated a determination to ‘veto’, or even to vote against as part of a Security Council majority (which would not constitute a veto) any resolution to authorise force against Iraq at any time in the future in any circumstances.  On the contrary:  Chirac several times pointedly reminded the interviewer that France was by no means a pacifist country.  It’s also worth reminding ourselves that everything said by Chirac in the interview precisely corresponded with the views of a solid majority of Security Council member governments at the time.

Of course it’s possible that in Mr Campbell’s secret talks the French took an irrevocably negative position, totally different from that defined by their President publicly on 10 March, indeed so negative as to justify Washington and London in embarking on a ferocious military attack on and invasion of Iraq without a vestige of authority from the Security Council as required under international law.  But that seems, on the face of it, rather unlikely.  And if the position of France was that defined in the Chirac television interview, Mr Campbell really ought to stop using France as an excuse for an action that was unwarranted, illegal, in breach of our Charter obligations, unnecessary, premature, opposed by much of the world including some of our closest allies and partners — and without question not the last resort.

Update (21 January 2010):  Professor Geoffrey Warner, in a comment on this blog post (below), has questioned my interpretation of the Chirac interview, quoting a passage from the transcript in support of his (and Alastair Campbell’s and Jack Straw’s and Tony Blair’s) opposite interpretation.  In a long response I have quoted back several other extracts from the Chirac interview which in my continuing view support my (and many others’) interpretation, namely that Chirac never said Never, only Not Now. My exchange with Professor Warner is at

Brian (back from Ethiopia)

7 Responses

  1. John O'Sullivan says:

    Brian, you say that “It’s disappointing that the Chilcot Inquiry didn’t focus . . . and Blair’s record in Iraq”. I’m not really disappointed as that’s more or less what I expected, but I am utterly disgusted. If a Rottweiler is sent into an old people’s home, the limp-wristed are not going to control it.

    Some of my comments might appear to be premature as the inquiry has some time yet to roll, but I have bitten my tongue for ages while fuming quietly. Like many honest citizens and tax-payers observing this charade (my view, I acknowledge) I expect a whitewash. The terms of reference are stated to be “as set out by the Prime Minister and agreed by the House of Commons”. Was Brown going to appoint establishment figures who are likely to eviscerate those who supported the fiction that precipitated this war? He supported the war, as did most of those around him (and as did the Tories). Their approach will now be to stick with their script and brazen it out – unless an investigation is done properly. Any genuine worth in the inquiry (in my view) will be pure coincidence, the inadvertent comment from the sideline that just happens to touch the core. I see plenty of value in Craig Murray’s blog entry on 24 November in which he states observations about the committee members and their previous positions on the war.

    The politeness of diplomatic euphemism or that of a slightly controversial discussion at a vicar’s tea-party will not extract the hard facts from those who must realize by now they have plenty to hide. Only when they are slammed against a wall, legally speaking, and interrogated by decent lawyers, not by carefully selected establishment flunkies, will such people acknowledge the truth.

    You may have seen Question Time on 14 January. I watched as Peter Hain squirmed and repeated (what seemed to me) transparent weasel-words that are the stock-in-trade of those who supported the fictitious story. Chris Huhne had the opportunity to decimate him but declined to do so. However, Hain’s position and his discomfort at being taken to task were very clear and very transparent.

    So, I have no option but to wait and watch this so-called inquiry progressing politely with hen’s teeth while tax-payers’ money is wasted and the intelligence of decent citizens is openly insulted. The establishment rules. Why bother with proper accountability when they can throw this sop to the proles to keep them quiet? Let the insulting charade continue.

    (Cue constitutional reform and real democracy that might encourage the people to behave more like free citizens who demand full accountability instead of over-deferential feudal serfs, i.e. subjects!)

    I’ll now bite my tongue again for a while.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this. But aren’t you being a little bit premature in writing off the Inquiry’s members as white-washing establishment flunkeys? Watch Sir Roderic Lyne politely but persistently homing in on suspect testimony by some of the more evasive witnesses and repeatedly putting his finger on precisely the weak points. I know Sir Roderic and believe me, he’s nobody’s flunkey. You may turn out to be right about the eventual conclusions of the Inquiry, or you may prove to have been completely wrong: it’s far too early to say. But in a sense it’s the evidence given publicly and on the record to the Inquiry that makes it hugely valuable and worth-while; a great amount of staggeringly frank and revealing evidence has already been given and there’s certain to be even more to come; so even if the Inquiry members funk pointing the finger in their eventual report (which they may do, or may not) it will still have been massively worth-while.

  2. Tony Westhead says:

    Alistair Campbell and Tony Blair keep insisting that Saddam was such a brutal dictator that it was right to get rid of him. We can all agree that Saddam was a bad man but the real question that The Chilcot Inquiry must resolve is whether the military action to achieve Regime change was contrary to International law which it almost certainly was. Then further whether Blair  misled the Cabinet and the country in taking us to war on a false prospectus?  Were his powers of persuasion excercised honestly? Two lessons to be learnt are that the PM should not have so much power almost singlehandedly to plunge us into a war that the majority of the public did not support. Another lesson is not to rely on legal advice from an Attorney-General who is a political appointee and member of the Govt. Also to cut out a lot of political advisers who are neither civil servants nor elected politicians.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, Tony. I agree with much of what you say, although I doubt if the Chilcot Inquiry will see it as compatible with its terms of reference to attempt a verdict on the legality or illegality of the Iraq war: they are not after all lawyers and they are not a court empowered to make legal judgements. I hope though that they will comment on the reasons for the apparently fluctuating legal advice given both privately to Blair and eventually publicly to us all by the then Attorney-General, on the reasons for the apparent suppression of the legal advice being given by the FCO legal advisers (the principal repository within government of expertise on international law), and on whether the government’s main objective in the run-up to military action and the decision to undertake it was (a) to rid Iraq of the WMD which it was (understandably) believed to possess, (b) to compel Iraq, under Saddam or some successor, to comply with its obligations under UNSC resolutions, or (c) régime change. Of course it may have been a combination of the three; but how far were (a) and (b) a figleaf to conceal a real fixation with (c)? And is it realistic to expect anyone to be able to answer that last question?

    On the role of the Attorney-General, the established tradition that the holder of that office is a political appointee and member of the government, but that the legal advice which he gives is impartial and free from party political distortion or bias, may have become unsustainable following the bitter controversy over Lord Goldsmith’s role in the Iraq imbroglio. But I’m not sure what kind of alternative arrangement one can envisage as an improvement.

  3. Geoffrey Warner says:

    I cannot see how you can say that Chirac never threatened to use the veto at the UN in his TV interview on 10 March 2003.  I followed the link which you kindly supplied and, after initially suggesting that a resolution in favour of war would not obtain a majority, he added that, even if it did,  ‘… France will vote “no”. But there is one possibility, what’s called exercising a veto, it’s when one of the five permanent members – the United States, Britain, Russia, China and France – votes “no”, and then even if there is a majority in favour of it, the resolution isn’t adopted. That’s what’s called exercising a veto.
    QUESTION – And, this evening, this is your position in principle?
    THE PRESIDENT – My position is that, regardless of the circumstances, France will vote “no”…’
    That seems pretty clear to me.  And I opposed the war throughout.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this. I hesitate to differ from such an eminent academic and historian, but I think the issue is slightly different from the way you have put it. Of course Chirac “threatened” to vote against any Security Council draft resolution to authorise the use of force forthwith against Iraq in the circumstances at the time of the interview, pointing out that since there would be a majority in the Council against such a resolution at that time, a negative vote by France would not constitute a veto. (A veto is a negative vote by a permanent member against a draft resolution in the Council which would have been adopted but for that negative vote.) He also said that France would vote against such a resolution at that time regardless of whether the majority of the Council was in favour of it, meaning that in that case it would constitute a veto. There’s no argument about any of that. The issue is whether Chirac’s position against a draft resolution to authorise the use of force applied only to the situation at the time of the interview, or whether he was saying that France would vote against any such resolution at any time in the future regardless of the circumstances, whether or not the inspectors had failed or had reported that Iraq had failed to cooperate with them or whether they had found WMD but Iraq had refused to get rid of them. In my view Chirac was talking only about the situation at the time. Jack Straw, Tony Blair and other UK ministers insisted at the time, and still insist, that Chirac had made it clear that France would always vote against (vetoing if necessary) a war-authorising resolution regardless of the circumstances. I don’t believe that the full transcript can be read in the latter sense.

    There was an interesting exchange this afternoon at the Chilcot Inquiry on this very point, between Sir Roderic Lyne and Jack Straw, the former insisting that Chirac had been at worst ambiguous and that Straw should at least have sought clarification from the French before treating the interview as ending any possibility of getting a second resolution at any future time, and the latter arguing that Chirac had said clearly that France would vote No (or if necessary veto) in any circumstances at any time, so there was thenceforth no point in continuing to seek the crucial second resolution. Personally I think it’s pretty clear from the full transcript that Chirac was talking only of the situation at that time, and not ruling out the possibility that force might have to be used in the future, with France’s support. The following extracts from the transcript seem to me to support that interpretation beyond reasonable doubt (emphases added):

    Or [the UN inspectors] will come and tell the Security Council: “we are sorry but Iraq isn’t cooperating, the progress isn’t sufficient, we aren’t in a position to achieve our goal, we won’t be able to guarantee Iraq’s disarmament”. In that case it will be for the Security Council and it alone to decide the right thing to do. But in that case, of course, regrettably, the war would become inevitable. It isn’t today.


    We have said: “we want to disarm Iraq”. (…) We unanimously chose the path of disarming him. Today, nothing tells us that this path is a dead end and, consequently, it must be pursued since war is always a final resort, always an acknowledgement of failure, always the worst solution, because it brings death and misery. And we don’t consider we are at that point. That’s why we are refusing to embark on a path automatically leading to war so long as the inspectors haven’t told us: “we can’t do any more”. And they are telling us the opposite.


    I firmly believe, this evening, that there isn’t a majority of nine votes in favour of that resolution including an ultimatum and thus giving the international green light to war.

    QUESTION – In other words, France wouldn’t need to use her veto?

    THE PRESIDENT – In this scenario, that’s exactly right. In this scenario, France will, of course, take a stand. There will be nations who will vote “no”, including France. Some will abstain. But, in any case, there won’t, in this scenario, be a majority. So there won’t be a veto problem.


    QUESTION – And, this evening, this is your position in principle?

    THE PRESIDENT – My position is that, regardless of the circumstances, France will vote “no” because she considers this evening that there are no grounds for waging war in order to achieve the goal we have set ourselves, i.e. to disarm Iraq.


    I believe today that the Russians and Chinese, who are in the same situation as France regarding the possibility of saying a definitive “no”, are, I think, prepared, if there’s a resolution authorizing war, to adopt the same attitude as France.


    QUESTION – If there is war, if the United States decide to wage war regardless of whether there’s a UN mandate, if it’s without a UN mandate, will France take any part at all in that war? (…)

    THE PRESIDENT – We aren’t involved and won’t be if there’s no UN decision, of course.

    QUESTION – No aircraft carrier, base, or deployment of men or soldiers?

    THE PRESIDENT – No military capability.

    QUESTION – Overflying national territory, if the request is made?

    THE PRESIDENT – That goes without saying. It’s part of the normal relations between allies. The Americans are our allies. We don’t agree with them on an immediate war in that part of the world, in Iraq, that doesn’t mean we aren’t allies.


    I repeat: war is always the worst solution. And France which isn’t a pacifist country, who doesn’t refuse war on principle, who is in fact proving this by currently being the leading contributor of troops to NATO, particularly in the Balkans, France isn’t a pacifist country. France considers that war is the final stage of a process, that all possible means must be used to avoid it because of its tragic consequences.

    Taken together, those extracts seem to me to put the matter beyond doubt. Chirac is saying that “today”, “this evening”, there is no case for “immediate” war, because other, peaceful, means of resolving the problem have not been exhausted and war could only be justified as a last resort when all else had failed: but if other means were exhausted at some time in the future, and the inspectors reported that they had failed, then France would not oppose the use of force, not being “a pacifist country”. The phrase “regardless of the circumstances” which Straw kept on repeating at the Inquiry today clearly, to my mind, refers to the particular circumstances in the Security Council at that time: “regardless of the circumstances” meant “whether or not there is still a majority in the Council against a resolution to authorise the use of force”, which was the point then under discussion. Even if Blair and Straw had not been able to accept that interpretation, they surely had a duty, as Sir Roderic Lyne implied, to ask Chirac which interpretation was correct, instead of taking his words as a signal to abandon the inspection and immediately go to war without UN authority.

  4. Tony Westhead says:

    The above discussion of the French “veto” is most interesting. I suspect myself that Tony Blair and Jack Straw  clutched at the threatened French Veto as a straw (no pun intended), because it provided the answer to those in the PLP and elsewhere who were pressing for a Second UN Resolution. In view of the veto there was no longer any point trying to go down that route and the blame could be  conveniently laid at the door of the French.  Whereas, in truth , the French position was the one we should have adopted ! So Blair andStraw were not really too bothered about the niceties as to whether the threatened Veto was just for the  present or for all time regardless of future circumstances. What they both chose to overlook ,however, is that without a Second UN Security Council Resolution military invasion would continue to be illegal. Sir Jeremy Greenstock threatened resignation but instead stayed on.
    The UN SC R 1441 in which Sir Jeremy Greenstock took a big hand in drafting was deliberately drafted so as to be ambiguous. This was British diplomacy “getting clever” , so he thought. He” played a blinder ” somebody said.   He had beened banned by the FCO from including any need for a further UNSC resolution in the text of 1441. Oh how clever they were! It was drafted in such a way that countries like France  , Germany  and Russia who opposed the war could support it in the understandable  belief that now the UN was seized of the issue no country would be able to invade unilaterally. They expected the UNSC to have to decide whether Saddam was in “material breach ” and further whether military action was ultimately  justified. This is, of course , what should have happened. But instead Britain and US  went ahead regardless of Hans Blix’s requests for more time for his inspections  and tha absence of UN approval  and launched the invasion which they had been planning all the time. It was utterly  dishonest to say  right up to the last minute that no invasion need take place if Saddam complied with UN resolutions because the US was clearly determined to invade irrespective of the UN and Tony Blair just tagged on behind the USA.  For them it would have been nice to have UN authority but they didn’t think too highly of the UN and were quite prepared to bypass it.  They knew perfectly well that if they asked for UN approval they would not get it , so they didn’t ask. Because if they had asked and it had been refused the War could not have gone ahead.  Such is the degree of respect shown by the UK and the greatest democracy in the world for International Law.
    What I find obnoxious  and repulsive is the all-pervading stench of  intellectual dishonesty  and arrogance  combined with incompetence  amongst our civil servants, political advisers and politicians ,that Chilcot reveals . No doubt there will be much more to come.

    Brian writes: Thanks, Tony. I agree with almost all of this speculative account, which is all too plausible. Just two reservations: I seem to recall that Sir Jeremy Greenstock’s threat of resignation occurred rather earlier than you imply, and was prompted by a looming possibility that the Americans would not agree to “go down the UN route” and try to get either a solution of the problem through the work of weapons inspectors, or failing that UN authority for the use of force. Both the US and the UK did of course decide to use the UN route, so a Greenstock resignation didn’t arise at that time.

    Secondly, I wouldn’t go quite as far as you do in using the scathing language of your penultimate sentence about the politicians, political advisers and civil servants who have been testifying to Chilcot. The civil servants in particular are in the unenviable position of having to account in the full glare of publicity and on the permanent record for matters about which their political masters ought to be carrying the responsibility. But the tradition whereby ministers accept responsibility for everything done in their departments and whereby the advice they have been given by their officials, whether they have acted on it or rejected it, is a matter strictly between them and the minister (for the next 30 years until the files are opened), is now a dead letter. Civil servants now know that they are liable to have to defend publicly and on camera the advice they have tendered to ministers and the actions they have taken on ministers’ behalf and in ministers’ name, and they are bound to tailor their advice and actions in self-defence accordingly. Thinking the unthinkable, innovative and controversial initiatives, and frank uninhibited discussion of the risks, advantages and drawbacks of policies will all be virtually impossible. The result is serious damage to the quality of official advice to ministers and to the indispensable basis of trust in officials’ relations with their ministers, inevitably leading to a perceptible coarsening of the texture of our public life. The arrogance of the media with their insistent demands for information when confidentiality is clearly required, and the cowardice of ministers who won’t take responsibility for their officials’ actions or defend their officials’ anonymity, are principally to blame for this alarming decline in the standards of our governance. But I recognise that this won’t be a popular view!

  5. Tony Westhead says:

    Thank you .I entirely accept the validity of both your reservations. You are  quite right about the timing of Sir Jeremy Greenstock’s threat to resign . Unfortunately , the Chilcot Inquiry didn’t press him to explain his reasons for considering resignation nor his decision not to so so. Bit of an omission there.
    My scathing remarks are far too sweeping and largely speculative . I do accept that. Especially as they were really aimed at no more than two people one of whom is not a civil servant whose evidence enraged me.  I think Sir Jeremy Greenstock, in particular, was probably a distinguished diplomat  trying to make the best of a very difficult situation and wasn’t always kept in the picture as regards the “noises off” which I presume were warlike noises.

    Jack Straw ,however,  as Foreign Secretary knew that the war would be illegal if it was about regime change and sent the PM a very good note to that effect -probably drafted by his officals! But in the end he went along with it despite knowing that he could have stopped UK participation. I think he should have resigned. He put loyalty to Tony Blair and Labour Party before the best interests of this country and respect for the UN and International Law. Again he deserved a more rigorous grilling.

  6. Geoffrey Warner says:

    Thank you very much for your full – and extremely prompt – reply to my comment on your blog. I take your point, although it comes to something when one has to read the utterances of a French president with the same kind of eye as one schooled in deciphering the true meaning of all those dreary speeches at Soviet and Chinese Communist Party congresses, where every nuance of wording could be of enormous significance. After all, when de Gaulle said something, you usually knew what he meant! I wonder if the original French text is any clearer. Or, indeed, if there were any background briefings from French officials which threw further light on the matter.

    In any case, I agree with you that, if it was in any doubt, the British government should have sought further clarification from the French. It didn’t of course because its mind was already made up.

    Regarding background briefings, etc., I do have a vague memory of reading somewhere at the time that the French attitude had been misinterpreted. This may, of course, have been a journalist who, like yourself, had bothered to read the full text of the Chirac interview and reached the same conclusion as yourself. On the other hand, there may have been more to it. Unfortunately, I never checked it out. I’m not sure that any clarification would have been extensively publicised in this country, if only because of the blind Francophobia of the British press. “Trust the Frogs to bottle out” would have been the general line! (I also remember the near total lack of awareness of French participation in the first Gulf War among people I spoke to at that time. It was simply never publicised over here.) One would need, I think, to look at the French press, especially Le Monde of course, for a more accurate portrayal of the French position.

    Brian writes: Thank you for these further comments.  Some time ago I did see a transcript of the Chirac interview in the original French (although it no longer seems to be available on the Web) and that for some reason the repeated references to “ce soir” and “aujourd’hui” did appear with greater prominence than their equivalents in the English translation.   I don’t know of any clarifications from the French either in background briefings or otherwise, and in view of the heated controversy over the true meaning of the interview I would expect any such clarification to have been extensively publicised if it had existed, if not in the congenitally insular UK media then surely among students of contemporary politics and international affairs, not to mention bloggers.  It’s possible that Chirac was being deliberately ambiguous, perhaps to keep everyone guessing about French intentions, and in view of the way Blair and his spokespersons and colleagues seized on the interview as a pretext for abandoning the UN effort and proceeding at once to war, he might have been embarrassed to issue a subsequent clarification for fear of being open to the charge that his original lack of clarity had played into the hands of his adversaries — as indeed it did.

  7. Chris Ward says:

    The original interview is, fortunately, still available in full on the website of l’Institut national de l’audiovisuel:

    Having listened to it again, I don’t think there is much room for doubt. There is an element of refusing to be drawn about possible future developments, but Chirac never rules out military action. Indeed he clearly says that if the inspection route fails, war would be inevitable. He rules out resort to war only while the inspectors were still saying that the inspection route was working. The key words throughout are indeed ‘aujourd’hui’ and ‘ce soir’, along with ‘immédiate’ and ‘efficace’.

    He also makes clear that he rejects the ‘automatic authorisation of war’ interpretation of 1441, the interpretation on which Blair’s claim that the war was lawful rests.

    One other point: both Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell are reputed to have quite good French. If they have, it seems unlikely that the constant misrepresentations of what Chirac said (and also of what de Villepin said) were accidental.

    Brian writes: Thank you very much for this. Any comment would be superfluous. “No further questions,” I think!

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