Iraq: a plan is not a decision, Mr Murdoch

In its report of the secret letter of 25 March 2002 (a year before the US-UK attack on Iraq) from Jack Straw, then Foreign & Commonwealth Secretary, to Tony Blair, warning the prime minister of the likely pitfalls involved in any future military action against Iraq, the Sunday Times of 17 January 2010 includes a pregnant sentence:

The document clearly implies that Blair was already planning for military action even though he continued to insist to the British public for almost another year that no decision had been made.

The implication of this is obvious, and reflects an extraordinarily widespread misconception on the part of commentators on the Iraq affair and current evidence about it to the Chilcot Inquiry:  it seeks to persuade us that if a government undertakes contingency planning for a possible future course of action, it must have taken a firm decision to adopt that course of action, and if it denies that any such decision has been taken, those denials are lies.  The fallacy in this proposition should be obvious.  According to the Guardian, John Witherow is now in his 13th year of editing the Sunday Times, the longest-serving editor in the history of Rupert Murdoch’s UK newspaper empire.  Did Mr Witherow not read his newspaper’s front page story before it was published, and if so didn’t this particular sentence strike him as not entirely kosher? Would the Sunday Times have allowed such a shoddy comment to appear on its front page when Harry Evans was its editor?

Tony Blair and Jack Straw are open to devastating criticism of numerous aspects of their records on Iraq;  the assertion that they, and some of their colleagues, may even be guilty of war crimes, is by no means far-fetched.  In such a situation, it’s surely a sad waste of precious ammunition to challenge Blair’s denials (until the last moment) that any decision had been taken to commit UK forces to the attack on Iraq on the absurd grounds that planning for possible participation in military action had begun a year earlier.  Nor are those denials in any way inconsistent with Blair’s conditional promise to George W Bush that Britain would take part in military action alongside the Americans if peaceful means of resolving the Iraq problem had been tried and had failed, leaving the use of force as the only remaining option.

The real and central charge against Blair, Straw and all those who connived at the UK decision to take part in the attack on Iraq is that peaceful diplomatic means of resolving the problem had not been exhausted when that fateful decision was taken in March 2003:  the UN weapons inspectors could and should have been given more time to determine whether Iraq actually possessed Weapons of Mass Destruction.  The use of force, in other words, was not the last resort.  It was hopelessly premature.  Because it was premature and not a last resort, a clear majority of members of the Security Council, including three of the five permanent members, were not willing to authorise it.  Without that UN authority, it was illegal under the UN Charter and thus contrary to international law: in the damning words of the Foreign Office’s deputy legal adviser, it amounted to “the crime of aggression”.

Banging on about the theory that Blair had taken a firm decision to use force a year before the invasion, or that his promise to Bush that Britain would do so was unconditional, is illogical, contrary to the evidence, and an unwelcome distraction from the real issues — which are grave enough, in all conscience.


3 Responses

  1. Contingency plans are unusual things. Governments make them for all kinds of possibilities, many or most of which are improbable. Apart from that, separating a plan from an intention is not all that easy. Of course, either can theoretically exist without the other but the Concise Oxford Dictionary says (selective quotations):
    intention· n.
    1 an aim or plan.
    plan · n.
    1 a detailed proposal for doing or achieving something.
    2 an intention or decision about what one is going to do.
    Many people including myself believe from what we have read that Blair not only planned for the contingency of invading Iraq but that he actually had the intention and made the decision to invade some time before the invasion actually occurred, from the meeting in Crawford and maybe even earlier. The devil lies in finding the proof.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, Peter. But I think your comment relies on a kind of pun, revolving around two or more distinct and easily separable usages of the word ‘plan’. You say that “Contingency plans are unusual things”, but my own experience of Whitehall (and to some extent of the workings of other countries’ governments) over four decades strongly suggests the exact opposite. Governments tend to be obsessed with the need to do contingency planning for the most improbable as well as more likely contingencies: they are terrified by the possibility of being caught with their pants down — i.e. without having done any planning in advance — by some unexpected turn of events, and indifferent to the considerable costs, including opportunity costs, of commissioning detailed planning against the possibility of all manner of improbable events. It is one thing to make contingency plans for action in case of certain defined eventualities materialising: it’s something else entirely to make a firm decision to take that action regardless of whether the eventuality materialises or does not. It’s difficult to have a meaningful discussion of contingency planning for possible military action against Iraq with someone who can’t tell the difference between the two. But I’m sure you can, whatever the Concise Oxford Dictionary says.

  2. ObiterJ says:

    Congratulations on many interesting and thoughtful threads.  The ones about Iraq are especially interesting.
    It seems to me that there is an additional point.  There was practically no planning for dealing with the immensely complex situation in Iraq AFTER the “shock and awe” had succeeded.  I am open to correction on that point but that is how it looks.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this. I entirely agree. It appears that the lack of planning for the situation after the invasion and initial occupation may have reflected George W Bush’s decision to relieve the State Department (which had drawn up a plan for this phase) of any responsibility in favour of the Pentagon under Rumsfeld, and it was the view of Rumsfeld, Cheney and other neo-cons that the occupiers would be welcomed with open arms by the Iraqi populace, the pro-western Iraqi exiles would return and form a government immediately, allowing the Americans to hand over to them more or less immediately and then withdraw. They also seem to have assumed that the new Iraqi régime would be subject to indirect US control, willing to protect US interests (including access to Iraqi oil and agreement to military facilities in Iraq), and in some magical way able to keep itself in office. I hope the Chilcot Inquiry may succeed in establishing how much of this fantasy was known about in Whitehall and Westminster before the attack on Iraq, and if those concerned here knew about it, what they did to point out to the Americans that it was pure cloud cuckoo-land.

    I like your blog, despite not myself being a lawyer — although for a short and strange period of my life I was actually a judge!

  3. Michael Hornsby says:

    A thought-provoking blog as ever,  Brian. But “plan” is semantically a slippery term, as Peter Harvey points out, and I’m not sure the position is quite as clear as you suggest (albeit that the Sunday Times journalist could have afforded to choose his words more carefully). I agree that there is no necessary contradiction in Tony Blair or anybody else saying that they are planning for war (in the sense of making preparations for that contingency) and at the same time insisting that no decision has yet been taken to go to war.  That was the line taken by Alastair Campbell and one which will no doubt be repeated by Mr Blair when he appears before the Inquiry. It would also be entirely possible, however, to be engaged in preparations for war and to have already decided to go to war. We may never know for certain whether this is the truer description of what was going on in Blair’s mind at the time, but there is  at least persuasive evidence that it may be.  If, as seems to be widely accepted, Blair gave Bush an assurance at their Crawford meeting that British troops would be deployed in support of an American invasion of Iraq, then that would, on any reasonable interpretation of language, have amounted to a decision by Blair to go to war in that event (albeit one that he seems to have kept to himself and not to have shared with any other members of Cabinet) To describe this as a “conditional promise” (your words)  is true but doesn’t make it any less of a decision. Self-evidently,  in the extremely unlikely event that diplomatic efforts to wrest concessions from Iraq had born sufficient fruit to satisfy the Americans, and Bush had decided at the eleventh hour not to use military force, then the condition for Blair’s decision/promise to go to war would have been removed. It remains,  at any rate on one widely accepted version of what took place at Crawford, that Blair took a clear decision: Britain would go to war if America went to war, which Blair must have known was a probability verging on a certainty. That conclusion is in no way changed by the fact that Blair also seems to have persuaded Bush that,  for appearances’ sake,  they should go through the motions of trying to secure UN Security Council backing for their military venture before launching it.  It is, of course, possible that the agreement reached at Crawford was not quite the clear-cut “signed-in-blood” pact suggested by Sir Christopher Meyer, but I submit that there is at least a plausible case, to make no stronger claim, for suspecting that Mr Blair had already made up his mind to go to war in support of an American invasion  at a time when he was still maintaining for public consumption that no such decision had yet been taken.  Geoff  Hoon’s almost comically self-effacing evidence earlier this week to Chilcot  suggested that Blair’s main concern during the run-up to the invasion was that the military preparations (in which Hoon would have us believe he played little part despite being Secretary of State for Defence at the time) should not be “too overt” – presumably because that might have betrayed Blair’s real intentions.  Blair would hardly be the first politician or statesman to have engaged in such legerdemain. Whether any of this is a fruitful line of inquiry for Chilcot to pursue is, of course, entirely another matter since so much of it turns on what was going on in Blair’s mind at the time, about which in the end we can only speculate.  As you say, there is plenty of other more verifiable evidence around to be used as ammunition against the former prime minister.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, Michael. I think though that you have misinterpreted my (and several Chilcot witnesses’) use of the word ‘conditional’ in reference to Blair’s promise to Bush to go to war in partnership with the US if the US went to war with Iraq. There is persuasive evidence now that Blair’s promise was “conditional”, not just on the condition that the US went to war (that would have been a meaningless condition: no-one thought the UK would or could attack Iraq on its own), but on the much more significant condition that the use of force should have been authorised by the UN Security Council, that all possible peaceful means of compelling or persuading Iraq to comply with its obligations under UNSC resolutions had been tried and had failed, and that war was consequently the last resort. There is, I admit, no evidence that these conditions were ever explicitly spelled out or put down on paper, as they certainly should have been: perhaps Blair feared that if he was too explicit about his conditions, Bush might tell him to get lost, saying in the words of the song, “I can get along without you pretty well.” But enough of those who were in the know at the time have now stressed that Blair did attach these conditions to his promise, for the onus now to be on those, like yourself, who maintain that he didn’t, to produce at least some evidence for that view.

    I also think the onus is on you to cite the evidence for your further charge that Blair prevented UK military preparations for a war from going ahead in order to conceal the fact that he had already decided unconditionally to join in the US attack on Iraq, and — even more serious an accusation — that the whole UN effort to resolve the problem peacefully by use of the weapons inspectors, as set out in resolution 1441, and, if necessary, a second resolution expressly authorising the use of force, was a complete charade so far as Blair was concerned: that, in your words, he was just “go[ing] through the motions”. That seems to me to verge on the far-fetched. It certainly flies in the face of the most likely and straightforward interpretation of everything that was happening at the time. The obvious reason for holding back on military contingency planning was precisely to make it clear that Britain still believed in the possibility of success by the UN route, thus avoiding the need for war; obtrusive signs of UK military preparations could have raised the suspicion that Britain had already given up on the UN process when in fact it had not. Such a suspicion could have scuppered UK efforts to get that elusive second resolution, on which Blair’s hopes must in all logic have been pinned, if only because failure to get the second resolution could well have spelled parliamentary defeat over Iraq and hence the end of Blair’s premiership. The golden rule must be to adopt the simplest and most obvious interpretation of events unless there is compelling evidence to the contrary. Where is yours?

    The sadness, to my mind, is that this whole argument about what was really in the deepest recesses of Blair’s mind, and what he didn’t say or hint or take as read in his contacts with Bush in the year or more before the attack on Iraq, can never, probably, be resolved — people will believe what they are already predisposed to believe and will dismiss any inconvenient evidence to the contrary. But the worst thing about this debate is that it distracts attention from the real indictment of Blair and his colleagues, which doesn’t depend on subjective and unprovable suspicions: why did Blair abandon the UN route before it had run its course, when the conditions he had almost certainly laid down for UK participation in the war had not been satisfied, resorting to war when war was not the last resort, committing his country to action in contravention of the UN Charter and international law, destroying any chance of a united EU position on Iraq, outraging a significant segment of UK public opinion, and putting at risk his place in history, all at a time when the Americans were quite relaxed about the possibility of having to go ahead with their war without the relatively minor benefit of having the UK alongside? What justification do those concerned now put forward for such a cataclysmic blunder? Compared with this, all else is froth.

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