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Bush, Blair and Howard – Three reckless adventurers in Iraq (Part 4)

The Iraq Inquiry Report (2009-2016) documents how Tony Blair committed Great Britain to war early in 2002, lying to the United Nations, to Parliament, and to the British people, in order to follow George Bush, who had planned an aggression on Iraq well before September 2001.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard conspired with both reckless adventurers, purported ‘to advise’ both buccaneers, sent troops to Iraq before the war started, then lied to Parliament and to the Australian people. He continues to do so.

Should he and his cabal be charged with war crimes? This, and more, is investigated by Dr George Venturini in this outstanding series.

The Iraq Inquiry (continued)

The report goes further in its criticism of the processes followed in obtaining a legal sign-off. Senior ministers were not consulted. ‘Normal practice’ was cast aside: it was ‘unusual’ for the attorney general rather than a minister to offer an explanation in Parliament. Ministers, senior officials and the cabinet weren’t provided with the written advice of 7 March; the cabinet wasn’t told how Blair had reached his views on material breach. The cabinet ‘should have been made aware of the uncertainties’, but was not. Goldsmith should have provided full written advice explaining the legal basis for action and setting out all the risks of legal challenge.

These are forceful criticisms. They are given added heft by the inquiry’s failure to be persuaded by Blair and Straw’s claim that France was to blame ‘for the “impasse” in the UN’, and by its blunt rejection of the idea that the UK had upheld the authority of the Security Council. Rather, ‘in the absence of a majority in support of military action, we consider that the UK was, in fact, undermining the Security Council’s authority.’

In fact the inquiry had plenty of material available to it which would have allowed it to express a view on the war’s legality. In June 2010 it sought submissions on the merits of the UK argument. It received 37 responses (quite why it took six years for them to see the light of day is unclear), reflecting the views of 57 expert individuals and six organisations. Just one of them supported the claim that the war was lawful, on the ‘revival’ theory – the idea that Resolution 678 could be revived and used to justify military action.

These respondents weren’t the ‘usual suspects’, naysayers and whingers who like to put the UK down or have an animus towards the prime minister or the attorney general. They included Franklin Berman QC, a former [Foreign and Commonwealth Office] legal adviser (‘nothing less than an overwhelmingly clear legal case will do,’ he said, and this was not such a case); Ralph Zacklin, a former head of legal affairs at the UN (the Iraq war was ‘an illegal act’ which ‘damaged the UK’s standing’ and ‘undermined’ the UN Charter and the credibility of the Security Council); and Nigel Rodley, the UK member of the UN Human Rights Committee (‘the conclusion … is inescapable: an unlawful use of force on such a scale amounts to the crime of aggression’). The inquiry says it used these submissions ‘to inform its consideration of legal issues’.

In addition, the inquiry hearings produced new accounts and documents that shed light on the legal process, detailing Goldsmith’s various changes of direction. The story is now familiar: from 30 July 2002, two days after Blair told Bush that he was with him ‘whatever’, until the end of February 2003 he consistently advised that before embarking on military action there was a need for explicit Security Council authorisation. In October Goldsmith told Straw that a draft of what would become Security Council Resolution 1441 did not offer the necessary explicit authorisation. Immediately after its adoption Goldsmith told 10 Downing Street that ‘he was not at all optimistic’ that it provided ‘a sound legal basis’ for war. In mid-January 2003 he confirmed that Resolution 1441 did not authorise war. Two weeks later, on 30 January, when Blair was on his way to Washington to meet Bush, Goldsmith wrote to him that ‘the correct legal interpretation of Resolution 1441 is that it does not authorise the use of military force without a further determination by the Security Council.’ Blair simply ignored the unwanted advice.

‘We had trouble with your attorney,’ a senior Bush lawyer reportedly told a British official. ‘We got him there eventually.’ By 7 March Goldsmith had changed tack, but not far enough. The report details the efforts made to persuade him to harden his advice on 13 and 14 March. They were successful and Goldsmith changed his mind again: no new Security Council resolution was needed provided there was ‘strong evidence’ that Iraq had failed to comply with Resolution 1441, a matter on which the views of the UN weapons inspectors would be significant. Two days later, on 15 March, Blair confirmed it was his ‘unequivocal view’ that Iraq was in ‘material breach of its obligations’. On 17 March Goldsmith told Parliament that the use of military force was unambiguously lawful without a further Security Council resolution. Nine months after the ‘I’m with you, whatever’ moment, Blair had the legal chit he wanted, although it was never put in formal, written legal advice.

Section 5 of the report lays bare, in excruciating detail, how these changes occurred. There’s nothing really new, since the material emerged when the hearings took place, but these 169 pages of tightly woven narrative and assessment nonetheless offer a unique insight into the place of legal advice within government: how law is made to fit around policy, rather than the other way round. You can tot up the lies and deceits, the duplicities and the fudges, the techniques used to deliver the support that Blair offered, ‘whatever’.

In November 2002 Straw told the cabinet that no further resolution beyond 1441 was needed, suppressing the contrary opinion of Goldsmith and of the FCO legal adviser Michael Wood. A month later Straw stopped Goldsmith giving advice (Lord Turnbull, the cabinet secretary, told the inquiry that ‘it would have been better’ if Goldsmith’s advice had been obtained earlier). Further meetings took place, without records being kept. In January Blair told Parliament that the UK could override an ‘unreasonable’ Security Council veto, knowingly contradicting Goldsmith’s clear advice. Later that month Blair failed to tell cabinet about Goldsmith’s serious concerns about the legality of a war, and decided not to ask the attorney general to speak in cabinet. Two weeks later, on 31 January, Blair met Bush and offered a commitment that contradicted the legal advice given to him by Goldsmith the previous day. Straw told Michael Wood that he did not accept that a further Security Council resolution was required. On 5 March Blair again ignored Goldsmith’s advice and told Bush that a Security Council resolution vetoed by one of the permanent members would still be ‘legally … acceptable’ if it received the nine votes necessary for a resolution to be adopted. Ministers ‘whose responsibilities were directly engaged’ – including the chancellor, Gordon Brown, and Clare Short, the minister for international development – ‘did not see’ Goldsmith’s written advice of 7 March. They weren’t told that a legal team was put together on 13 March ‘to help Lord Goldsmith to explain in public the legal basis “as strongly and unambiguously as possible”,’ or that the attorney general had retained Christopher Greenwood, a professor of international law at the LSE, ‘for the purpose of assisting in the development of legal arguments in support of the view that there was a sound legal basis for the use of force without a second resolution’. Finally, when Goldsmith’s 337-word parliamentary answer was put before cabinet on 17 March, they were not aware that it set out ‘the legal basis for the use of force, not his advice’.

I try to imagine what it would have been like to attend cabinet on the afternoon of 17 March. The attendees have before them a sheet of paper giving the simple legal basis for war. They know nothing of what has come before, of Goldsmith’s numerous changes of direction, or that they are proceeding on the false basis that the document before them constitutes his legal advice (‘it seemed to me the attorney general’s advice was quite unequivocal,’ Gordon Brown told the inquiry, in error). They don’t know that the document before them omits all the uncertainties and Goldsmith’s belief that the proposed legal basis for war is unlikely to persuade a court.” (A grand and disastrous deceit, London Review of Books, Vol. 38 No. 14 – 28 July 2016 at 9).

Later that afternoon a defiant Anthony Charles Linton Blair, QC took to the airwaves. Sir John Chilcot had spoken for 25 minutes; Blair spoke for nearly two hours. Not for him the apology of his deputy, John Leslie Prescott, now Baron Prescott, who wrote in The Sunday Mirror that, in view of the Report, he now believed the war was ‘catastrophic’ and ‘illegal’.

Blair instead defended himself, saying he would take ‘the same decision’ again.

Professor Sands observed: “This unhappy intervention will not do him any favours. It makes it more likely he will be pursued, perhaps for contempt of Parliament, or by civil claims, or claims of misfeasance in public office. He might even face worse, a possibility raised in the resignation letter tendered in 2003 by the Foreign Office legal adviser Elizabeth Wilmshurst, whose position has been vindicated by the inquiry: “I regret that I cannot agree that it is lawful to use force without a second Security Council resolution … I cannot in conscience go along with advice within the Office or to the public or Parliament – which asserts the legitimacy of military action without such a resolution, particularly since an unlawful use of force on such a scale amounts to the crime of aggression; nor can I agree with such action in circumstances which are so detrimental to the international order and the rule of law.” [Sands, op. cit.].

Anyway, this is Mr. Blair’s original full statement:

“The report should lay to rest allegations of bad faith, lies or deceit. Whether people agree or disagree with my decision to take military action against Saddam Hussein; I took it in good faith and in what I believed to be the best interests of the country.

I note that the report finds clearly:

– That there was no falsification or improper use of Intelligence (para 876 vol 4)

– No deception of Cabinet (para 953 vol 5)

– No secret commitment to war whether at Crawford Texas in April 2002 or elsewhere (para 572 onwards vol 1)

The inquiry does not make a finding on the legal basis for military action but finds that the Attorney General had concluded there was such a lawful basis by 13th March 2003 (para 933 vol 5).

However the report does make real and material criticisms of preparation, planning, process and of the relationship with the United States.

These are serious criticisms and they require serious answers.

I will respond in detail to them later this afternoon.

I will take full responsibility for any mistakes without exception or excuse.

I will at the same time say why, nonetheless, I believe that it was better to remove Saddam Hussein and why I do not believe this is the cause of the terrorism we see today whether in the Middle East or elsewhere in the world.

Above all I will pay tribute to our Armed Forces. I will express my profound regret at the loss of life and the grief it has caused the families, and I will set out the lessons I believe future leaders can learn from my experience.” (Chilcot Report: Bush says ‘world is better off’ without Saddam as Blair mounts Iraq war defence – as it happened, The Guardian, 7 July 2016).

After the release of the Report, British Prime Minister David Cameron spoke some words to the effect of “learning lessons,” but made sure to leave the door open for future military interventionism, a caveat which negates his previous comments about learning from the mistakes of the Iraq war. In contrast, Jeremy Corbyn issued a thoughtful apology on behalf of the Labour Party in which he spoke about the terrible consequences that have resulted from the war, including the deadly attacks led by Islamic State in Baghdad over the weekend, a group whose origins Corbyn traces to the “aftermath of the invasion.”

“Politicians and political parties,” Corbyn concluded, “can only grow stronger by acknowledging when they get it wrong and by facing up to their mistakes.” He also outlined steps that his country – or any peace-loving country – has the obligation to take in the future: “to uphold international law, to seek peaceful solutions to international disputes, to respect the role and the authority of the United Nations and always to treat war as absolutely last resort.”

Evidence in the Report is already being analysed in order to determine whether families of military members who died in the war can sue Blair and others in civil courts.

Importantly, the investigation will open the eyes of many who perhaps were unaware of the deceit which prompted the waging of a long, deadly and expensive war by neoliberal ‘western’ leaders, or soi-disant leaders such as Bush, Blair and in Australia John Howard were, under the guise of democracy and justice, and the pretext of humanitarian intervention.

Tomorrow: Was the war legal?

GeorgeVenturiniDr. Venturino Giorgio Venturini – ‘George’ devoted some sixty years to study, practice, teach, write and administer law at different places in four continents. In 1975, invited by Attorney-General Lionel Keith Murphy, Q.C., he left a law chair in Chicago to join the Trade Practices Commission in Canberra – to serve the Whitlam Government. In time he witnessed the administration of a law of prohibition as a law of abuse, and documented it in Malpractice, antitrust as an Australian poshlost (Sydney 1980). He may be reached at

⬅️ Part 3

➡️ Part 5

1 comment

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  1. Richard Grant

    Great read.

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