A declassified note Tony Blair sent to George W. Bush in July 2002 looks like the most damning evidence that Blair committed the country to war with Iraq months before his Cabinet and Parliament voted on the issue.
The note, declassified as part of the Chilcot Report into the Iraq war, was sent eight months before Parliament approved military action in Iraq. It begins with Prime Minister Blair saying: “I will be with you, whatever,” adding that: “Getting rid of Saddam is the right thing to do.”
Blair makes clear reference to the onset of military action against Iraq, saying that it could be “militarily tricky” and suggesting ultimatums from the UN over weapons inspections could be used as “our casus belli” — a Latin phrase that means an action that justifies war.
The Blair memo is one of the most extraordinary — and compelling — political war documents you’ll ever read. Blair’s thinking is crystal clear. He anticipates all the problems (terrorism, instability, fairweather coalition partners) that did actually happen.
Most surprisingly, it is written as if Blair believes that President Bush doesn’t understand quite how difficult the war is going to be, and as if Blair feels he needs to educate Bush on the problems he faces.
Here is our dissection of the memo. There is a link to the entire document below.
“I will be with you, whatever.”
The memo opens with this:
The date is eight months before the war began, and it reads as if Blair and Bush have already decided it is going to happen.
Blair and Bush even discuss a date for starting the war – months beforehand
Blair says Saddam would likely break the ultimatums or could be portrayed as doing so, giving them an excuse to invade. He writes:
“If he [Saddam Hussein] did say yes, we count in the build-up and we send teams over and the moment he obstructs, we say: he’s back to his games. That’s it. In any event, he probably would screw it up and not meet the deadline, and if he came forward after the deadline, we would just refuse to deal.”
“In Europe generally, people just don’t have the same sense of urgency post 9/11”
Despite committing to Bush’s cause, Blair admits in the memo: “In Britain, right now I couldn’t be sure of support from Parliament, Party, public or even some of the Cabinet”:
That paragraph is written as if Blair thinks Bush doesn’t realise the political reality of the time, that the “War on Terror” was a much lower priority outside America.
“Opinion in the US is quite simply on a different planet”
Blair returns to that theme here:
Blair says the US and UK should not “be mucked around by Saddam”, adding that “the danger is he drags us into negotiations,” which suggests Blair was considering force well before the rest of the UK had been convinced.
In the memo, Blair references discussing the fact that the US and UK would “do Iraq” with an unnamed Middle Eastern diplomat. But he tells Bush that it could be politically difficult and calls for the US and UK to convene a coalition against Iraq.
“Evidence … I have been told the US thinks this unnecessary”
He calls for Bush to present evidence for the case for war in Iraq, something Blair astonishingly claims the US feels it doesn’t need. And there is a tantalising throwaway line: “as seems possible, add on Al Qaida link”:
The world only learned afterward that there was no Iraq/Al Qaida link. The context of that line is not clear but Blair’s critics will likely see it as evidence that neither leader believed at the time that Al Qaida was involved, but they were happy to let the public think so.
“Getting rid of Saddam is the right thing to do”
This paragraph is another that makes it look like Bush and Blair had decided on war nearly a year before they embarked on the conflict, regardless of what the UN, the US Congress and the British Parliament wanted:
This gets to the heart of the Chilcot Report’s conclusion: that Blair effectively put the cart before the horse, deciding to go to war to remove Saddam Hussein and then trying to justify it after the fact.
To this end, Blair later withheld legal advice from his cabinet and “overstated the firmness of the evidence about Iraq’s capabilities and intentions” so that he could “make the case”, the Chilcot Report says. Sir John Chilcot went as far as to say the decision to go to war was based on “flawed intelligence.”
“Recriminations will start fast”
In this section, Blair predicts — accurately, as it turns out — that if anything goes wrong it will go wrong very quickly and very badly:
“We need this to be going right, not wrong”
This part of the memo is off the main topic but in some ways is crucial: The US invasion of Afghanistan was proving difficult, mushy and dangerous — a quagmire that stood as a stark warning not to take on a second similar conflict. Blair seems alert to this but feels the need to press Bush on it.
War began “before peaceful options were exhausted”
Ultimately, the Chilcot Report concluded that the UK committed to war in Iraq “before peaceful options were exhausted” and in his speech unveiling the report Sir John Chilcot singled out this memo, saying it shaped the UK’s policy towards Iraq and put it on a path towards war.
Blair said he took the decision to go to war with “the heaviest of hearts.” “I did it because I thought it was right,” he said in a statement on Wednesday.
At a press conference presenting his defence, Blair was accused by one journalist of presenting the US with a “blank cheque” for military action with the phrase “I will be with you, whatever.” Blair denied this, saying: “The whole person of my intervention was to get them to go down the UN route.”
The Chilcot Report says that this cavalier attitude to intelligence has “produced a damaging legacy, including undermining trust and confidence in Government statements, particularly those which rely on intelligence which cannot be independently verified.”
Here’s the full memo from Tony Blair to George Bush:
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