No matter how it ends up being spun, Sir Christopher Meyer’s testimony to the Chilcot Inquiry today demonstrated, without a shadow of a doubt, how “regime change” in Iraq was agreed between George W. Bush and Tony Blair in April 2002, and how the rush to war by the US meant that furious attempts to justify the plan were doomed to fail, “because there was no smoking gun.”
Meyer, who was Britain’s ambassador to the US between 1997 and 2003, was speaking about British and American policy towards Iraq between the 9/11 attacks and the invasion of March 2003. He explained how, before 9/11, the general feeling in the Bush administration was that Iraq was “running out of steam,” and that it was a low priority, but that, immediately after the 9/11 attacks, Iraq rose to the top of the US agenda.
As Meyer explained, “On 9/11 itself in the course of the day I had a telephone conversation with (then national security adviser) Condoleezza Rice and I said, ‘Who do you think did it?’ She said, ‘There’s no doubt it was an al-Qaeda operation.’ At the end of the conversation she said, ‘We’re just looking at the possibility that there could be any link to Saddam Hussein.’ That little reference to him, by the following weekend, turned into a big debate between Bush and his advisers.”
Meyer also focused on the neo-cons within the Bush administration who relied on faulty intelligence to bolster their claims that there was a link between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda, stating that US deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz “was quite convinced that there was a strong connection between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda. There was a constant reference to the fact that Mohammed Atta (one of the 9/11 hijackers) had met Iraqi intelligence agents in Prague. That wasn’t true, but you couldn’t dig it out of the bloodstream of certain members of the US administration. There was another idea that there was an al-Qaeda camp on the Iraqi border where Saddam would allow them to do things. That wasn’t true either.”
He also explained that the administration was so “irritated” by the CIA’s refusal to accept its claims that a “rival and replacement” intelligence unit was established by the White House.
Recalling his first meeting with George W. Bush in 1999, Meyer explained that the then-Presidential hopeful had told him, “I don’t know much about foreign policy. I’m going to have to learn pretty damn fast. I’m going to have to surround myself with good people.” Instead, his key advisors — the Vulcans — included Condoleezza Rice and Paul Wolfowitz.
Moving on to the relationship between George W. Bush and Tony Blair, Meyer said that they struck up a good relationship when they first met in 2001, and explained that Blair’s speech immediately after 9/11, in which he promised to support America in its hour of need, “sealed Tony Blair’s reputation in America, which remains sealed to this day. Wherever you went, people would rise to their feet and give you a warming round of applause. You had to be careful not to be swept away by this stuff.” He added that, at an international conference at a later date, “Condoleezza Rice once said to me that the only human being [Bush] felt he could talk to was Tony, and the rest were creatures from outer space.”
However, he also explained that Blair’s decision to support the US invasion of Iraq was not “as poodle-ish” as has been suggested, because he had been “a true believer about the wickedness of Saddam Hussein” since 1998, when, of course, Blair had first seized on humanitarian intervention in the case of Kosovo.
Speaking about the private meeting between Bush and Blair at the President’s ranch in Crawford, Texas in April 2002, Meyer spoke frankly about how he felt that, whatever conversations took place when the two men were alone, they set the seal on Britain’s involvement with the planned invasion. “I took no part in any of the discussions and there was a large chunk of that time when no adviser was there,” he said. “The two men were alone in the ranch so I’m not entirely clear to this day what degree of convergence (on Iraq policy) was signed in blood, if you like, at the Crawford ranch. But there are clues in the speech Tony Blair gave the next day, which was the first time he had said in public ‘regime change.’ He was trying to draw the lessons of 9/11 and apply them to the situation in Iraq, which led — I think not inadvertently but deliberately — to a conflation of the threat posed by Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. When I read that I thought, ‘This represents a tightening of the UK/US alliance and a degree of convergence on the danger Saddam Hussein presented.’”
Although Blair came out in support of regime change in April 2002, Meyer explained that, nevertheless, the UK hoped that Saddam Hussein would be removed by a combination of diplomatic pressure and threats, but that as soon as President Bush set out a timetable for an invasion, the shortage of time meant that “when you looked at the timetable for the [UN weapons] inspections, it was impossible to see how [Hans] Blix [chief weapons inspector] could bring the process to a conclusion, for better or for worse, by March,” and, as a result, “instead of Saddam proving his innocence we had to prove his guilt by finding a smoking gun. We have never really recovered from that because there was no smoking gun.”
So was Sir Christopher Meyer’s testimony significant? I certainly think so, and so does Chris Ames at the Guardian, who has just written:
The government’s version of events was always that it was taking action to deal with the threat of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. Leaked documents, most notably the Downing Street documents, show that the policy was to go along with the US desire for regime change and use weapons of mass destruction as a pretext. This version of events was confirmed by what Meyer said this morning. I don’t think it could be more explosive.
Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009, details about my film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (launched in October 2009), and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.