If we don’t see Blair exchanges with Bush, we’ll never know the truth about Iraq

I think we’re alone now… EPA/Claudio Onorati

The passing of a decade has not dulled the sense of outrage at the UK involvement in the Iraq War, and the news that the Iraq Inquiry can only publish the “gist” of Tony Blair’s talks with George Bush will only further rile public anger.

The government’s argument – that publishing the records of these kinds of conversations would harm UK diplomacy, and especially its relations with the US – is understandable. But that potential cost shows exactly how damaging the war was to the UK national interest.

Following the US into Iraq is widely regarded as the worst foreign policy decision since the Suez crisis, and has been since shortly after it happened. It is therefore surely in the national interest to fully explain what led to that mistake. If excessive sensitivity to US opinion prevents us from doing that, we risk learning nothing.

Whitehall is often too quick to cite “the special relationship” to trump other national priorities. As foreign secretary, for instance, David Miliband tried to prevent the publication of intelligence related to the detention of terrorist suspects by citing the damage it could do to that relationship. He was overruled by judges who saw things differently – and the special relationship survives.

US-UK relations are, as the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee recently noted, deep-seated and durable. They can survive disagreements. Indeed, Parliament’s rejection of military strikes against Syria in August 2013 proved that there is perhaps greater room for an independent British stance than is often acknowledged.

Still, we are where we are. After a long time negotiating, and with the promise of completion by the end of the year, it is impossible to imagine the Iraq Inquiry changing the agreement that was announced on Thursday.

Some might say the credibility of the whole inquiry has been damaged. This is not the case. History is always informed by the author’s “gist”, and the public can place some trust in the expert panel that is writing the report.

But while historians will now be deprived of this particular evidence, that still does not mean the whole inquiry has been discredited, or that its findings will be redundant. There is a wealth of primary material on the inquiry’s website, which will allow the public to reach its own conclusions. Historians and policy analysts will be able to challenge the inquiry’s findings when they are eventually published.

Inconclusive evidence

We are told then that the inquiry will be able to quote, or refer to, Cabinet-level discussions, as well as the “notes” passed between Blair and Bush. Reports suggest these notes will help the inquiry reach a conclusion on why and when Blair actually committed UK military support to the US, and how that squared with the UK’s publicly declared stance.

Central to this question is what happened at the meeting between Blair and Bush at Crawford in April 2002, almost a year prior to the invasion.

The current evidence is inconclusive. The UK’s then ambassador to the US, Sir Christopher Meyer, made headlines with his 2010 testimony when he stated that he believed Blair “signed in blood” a commitment to go to war. But this is contradicted by Blair’s closest advisers; his chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, for instance, dismisses Meyer’s account by reminding the inquiry that the ambassador was not at Crawford. “There was no undertaking in blood to go into war on Iraq. There was no firm decision to go to war”, Powell told the inquiry in 2010.

This is significant because at the time, Blair was telling the country that no such commitment had been made. Indeed, the inquiry has revealed the pressure that the prime minister was under from within government, specifically his lawyers. Both the Foreign Office and the attorney-general had explicitly ruled out legal justifications for war based on either self-defence or humanitarian intervention.

Blair therefore could not give an undertaking to go to war without additional UN Security Council resolutions. Ultimately, of course the US and UK did persuade the UN Security Council to pass Resolution 1441 in November 2002, which formed the basis of the legal argument for military force.

But the question to be answered by the inquiry is whether Blair gave a military commitment prior to the passage of that Resolution.

Difficulties? What difficulties?

Blair gave his own answer when he appeared before the inquiry in 2011, in which he described what was in that post-Crawford note. The gist of it, Blair said, was that the US could “count on us … whatever the political heat, if I think this is the right thing to do I am going to be with you”. He said he acknowledged there would be “difficulties” that would need to be overcome.

This leaves various questions unanswered. What did Blair mean exactly by “difficulties”? Obviously UN authorisation to use force was an issue, but did Blair convey that to Bush as a legal condition or merely a political preference?

If Blair stated clearly to Bush that the UK could not commit forces without a UN resolution, then he was in step with the legal advice at the time. If instead he told Bush and others that the UK would commit forces even without a UN Resolution, that is very different indeed.

One of the most intriguing oral testimonies to the Iraq Inquiry was that of Sir David Manning, Blair’s foreign policy adviser. It suggests that the prime minister was under the impression that two further Security Council resolutions were required before the UK could claim a UN mandate for force. One resolution would set out the disarmament conditions Iraq had to meet and another would state what action could be taken if Iraq failed to comply. Did Blair convey this to President Bush?

Of course, Blair failed to secure the so-called “second resolution” in March 2003, and decided to go to war regardless.

This does not necessarily mean the UK acted illegally; lawyers inside and outside the government have argued that Resolution 1441 was sufficient by itself because it “revived” the authority to use force granted in earlier resolutions.

Had Blair made obtaining a second resolution a firm precondition for UK involvement, he could easily have withdrawn from the military coalition in 2003 when he failed to secure one. But if he led the US to believe the second resolution was a mere preference, the cost of withdrawing from the coalition would have been much higher. This could help explain Blair’s determination to go to war even without the second resolution.

Sophisticated strategy

Many will argue that withholding exactly what Blair and Bush said to each other will protect the former prime minister from a deserved official condemnation. This is not necessarily the case. The publicly available evidence produced by the inquiry suggests Blair was pursuing a very sophisticated (and in some senses admirable) diplomatic strategy.

Manning’s testimony was highly interesting on this point. He suggested that Blair and his team were highly concerned that the threat of Iraq’s supposed WMD programme might encourage the US to undermine the post-1945 liberal international order by acting without a UN mandate. In order to address this, Blair took on the ambitious task of trying to bring the US and the UN together – either by convincing the UN that the US’s argument for regime change was justified, or by convincing the US that the UN’s preference for mere disarmament was reasonable.

If borne out by his correspondence with Bush, that second possible strategy would hardly support the idea that Blair was always ready to defy the UN in support of a president hellbent on regime change.

But unfortunately for him, it would simply be testament to his failure to bring the US and the UN together to avert what did ultimately transpire. And while it might change the popular view of his intentions, the question of whether it was an appropriate strategy in the first place would remain open.

The news that the inquiry cannot publish the notes and records of all relevant conversations is not unexpected; it is, of course, disappointing. But we should resist the temptation to dismiss the inquiry as irrelevant; it will still answer crucial questions, and help us understand exactly how and why the UK goes to war. Its findings should not be delayed any longer; we have waited long enough.