From Memos, Insights Into Ally's Doubts On Iraq War
Tuesday, June 28, 2005
LONDON -- In the spring of 2002, two weeks before British Prime Minister Tony Blair journeyed to Crawford, Tex., to meet with President Bush at his ranch about the escalating confrontation with Iraq, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw sounded a prescient warning.
"The rewards from your visit to Crawford will be few," Straw wrote in a March 25 memo to Blair stamped "Secret and Personal." "The risks are high, both for you and for the Government."
In public, British officials were declaring their solidarity with the Bush administration's calls for elimination of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. But Straw's memo and seven other secret documents disclosed in recent months by British journalist Michael Smith together reveal a much different picture. Behind the scenes, British officials believed the U.S. administration was already committed to a war that they feared was ill-conceived and illegal and could lead to disaster.
The documents indicate that the officials foresaw a host of problems that later would haunt both governments -- including thin intelligence about the nature of the Iraqi threat, weak public support for war and a lack of planning for the aftermath of military action. British cabinet ministers, Foreign Office diplomats, senior generals and intelligence service officials all weighed in with concerns and reservations. Yet they could not dissuade their counterparts in the Bush administration -- nor, indeed, their own leader -- from going forward.
"I think there is a real risk that the administration underestimates the difficulties," David Manning, Blair's chief foreign policy adviser at the time, wrote to the prime minister on March 14, 2002, after he returned from meetings with Condoleezza Rice, then Bush's national security adviser, and her staff. "They may agree that failure isn't an option, but this does not mean they will necessarily avoid it."
A U.S. official with firsthand knowledge of the events said the concerns raised by British officials "played a useful role."
"Were they paid a tremendous amount of heed?" said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "I think it's hard to say they were."
Critics of the Bush administration contend the documents -- including the now-famous Downing Street Memo of July 23, 2002 -- constitute proof that Bush made the decision to go to war at least eight months before it began, and that the subsequent diplomatic campaign at the United Nations was a charade, designed to convince the public that war was necessary, rather than an attempt to resolve the crisis peacefully. They contend the documents have not received the attention they deserve.
Supporters of the administration contend, by contrast, that the memos add little or nothing to what is already publicly known about the run-up to the war and even help show that the British officials genuinely believed Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. They say that opponents of Bush and Blair are distorting the documents' meaning in order to attack both men politically.
But beyond the question of whether they constitute a so-called smoking gun of evidence against the White House, the memos offer an intriguing look at what the top officials of the United States' chief ally were thinking, doing and fearing in the months before the war.
This article is based on those memos, supplemented by interviews with officials on both sides of the Atlantic -- none of whom was willing to be cited by name because of the sensitivity of the issue -- and written accounts. Spokesmen for the Foreign Office and the prime minister's office declined to comment but did not question the authenticity of the documents.
Debating Military Action
British concerns over the direction of Iraq policy began long before July 2002. By the end of January of that year, officials said, the British Embassy in Washington informed London that U.S. military planning for an invasion of Iraq had begun. The sense of alarm here increased after Bush, in his State of the Union address on Jan. 29, branded Iraq, Iran and North Korea as an "axis of evil" -- a phrase many people in Britain saw as bellicose and simplistic.