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.
Blair did not share their view. His aides contend that in the days immediately after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Blair saw Saddam Hussein's Iraq as a potential danger that needed to be dealt with. But the prime minister faced an entirely different set of obstacles, political and legal, than Bush did, including much stronger domestic opposition to war.
The first major British cabinet discussion on Iraq took place March 7, 2002, according to the memoirs of Robin Cook, the former foreign secretary who quotes several senior cabinet secretaries as raising questions about the war. "What has changed that suddenly gives us the legal right to take military action that we didn't have a few months ago?" demanded David Blunkett, one of Blair's closest political allies.
Blair defended his approach, Cook reported, by saying Britain's national interest lay in staying closely allied with the United States. "I tell you that we must steer close to America," Blair said, according to Cook. "If we don't, we lose our influence to shape what they do."
These themes would be repeated regularly in the first six Downing Street memos, composed between the March 7 cabinet meeting and Blair's trip to Crawford a month later.
The first memo was a 10-page options paper produced by the overseas and defense secretariat of the Cabinet Office the day after the cabinet meeting. It noted that British intelligence on Iraq was poor, that no legal justification currently existed for invasion and that removing Hussein's government "could involve nation building over many years." Still, it concluded: "Despite the considerable difficulties, the use of overriding force in a ground campaign is the only option that we can be confident will remove Saddam and bring Iraq back into the international community."
In his memo to Blair six days later, Manning wrote that "Bush has yet to find the answers to the big questions." The foreign policy adviser raised several matters, including "how to persuade international opinion that military action against Iraq is necessary and justified" and "what happens on the morning after?"
On March 22, Peter Ricketts, then political director of the Foreign Office, wrote to Straw that Blair could also "bring home to Bush some of the realities" and "help Bush make good decisions by telling him things his own machine probably isn't." Ricketts went on to warn that a military campaign would need "clear and compelling military objectives" and that regime change "does not stack up."
"Regime change which produced another Sunni General still in charge of an active Iraqi WMD program would be a bad outcome," Ricketts concluded.
Finally, Straw weighed in with his own memo to Blair laying out the political problems in convincing members of Parliament in the ruling Labor Party that the use of force was justified, legal and would produce the desired result. But even after legal justification, Straw added, "We have also to answer the big question -- what will this action achieve? There seems to be a larger hole on this than on anything."
A U.S. official who observed the process said British objections followed a traditional path. "To some extent the mandarins were playing the role they were acculturated to play in the Washington-London dialectic, which is always to play devil's advocate," he said. "I'm not saying they were sanguine -- they weren't -- but since time immemorial they have always played Athens to our Rome, working hard to remove us from a tendency toward what they consider impetuosity or misguided idealism."
The Crawford Meeting
At the Crawford summit, in April 2002, Bush and Blair discussed the prospect of going to war in the spring or fall of 2003. According to a Cabinet Office briefing paper prepared in July, Blair told Bush that "the U.K. would support military action to bring about regime change, provided that certain conditions were met: efforts had been made to construct a coalition/shape public opinion, the Israel-Palestine Crisis was quiescent, and the options for action to eliminate Iraq's WMD through U.N. weapons inspectors had been exhausted."
In a post-summit speech at the George Bush Presidential Library in College Station, Tex., Blair offered a cryptic criticism of his own advisers. His commitment to democratic values, Blair said, "means that when America is fighting for those values, then, however tough, we fight with her -- no grandstanding, no offering implausible and impractical advice from the touchline."
"In the end, only Blair and Bush know what they said to each other at Crawford and what they agreed to," said a senior British official. "They spent a long time together with no one else around, which was most unusual."
After his return from Washington, officials and analysts say, Blair sought to unify the fractious elements within his government and party around a policy of coercive diplomacy. "Blair comes back from Crawford with a clear sense that the Americans are preparing for war," said Michael Clarke, director of the International Policy Institute at King's College, who met with policymakers at key points during the year. "But the British approach is slightly different -- that we are preparing for war as a means of forcing Iraq to comply so that we don't actually have to fight."
By the early summer of 2002, officials said, there was a new sense of alarm and concern in London. The Bush administration had not committed to seeking U.N. support, and U.S. forces were increasing flyovers and other military activities that officials feared could be provocative. Meanwhile, opinion polls were showing that a majority of Britons opposed military action and 160 members of Parliament had signed a proposed resolution urging caution.
Several senior officials were dispatched to the United States for consultations. When they returned to London, a meeting was scheduled that produced two more secret documents. The first was a Cabinet Office briefing paper dated July 21 that expressed concern that stepped-up U.S. air raids inside Iraq created "the risk that military action is precipitated in an unplanned way."
The briefing paper also said that a Security Council resolution setting up the return of U.N. inspectors to Iraq could be drafted in a way that Hussein would find unacceptable. "It is just possible that an ultimatum could be cast in terms which Saddam would reject (because he is unwilling to accept unfettered access) and which would not be regarded as unreasonable by the international community," the memo reported.
On July 23, officials gathered at Blair's office. Among them were Straw; Manning; Richard Dearlove, chief of Britain's MI6 intelligence agency; Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon; Attorney General Peter Goldsmith; and Adm. Michael Boyce, chief of the Defense Staff.
Dearlove, a veteran intelligence operative with a reputation for being hard-nosed and ambitious, had just returned from a visit to Washington, where officials say he met with Rice and CIA Director George J. Tenet.
According to the July 23 memo, Dearlove reported "a perceptible shift in attitude" in Washington. "Military action was now seen as inevitable," the memo said, adding that the president's National Security Council "had no patience with the U.N. route." Dearlove also included the observation that "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy."
Straw, who was consulting daily with his American counterpart, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, reiterated that "it seemed clear that Bush had made up his mind to take military action, even if the timing was not yet decided," according to the memo. But, Straw added, "the case was thin." He urged the government to produce a plan for an ultimatum to allow U.N. weapons inspectors to return to Iraq.
The memo indicates that officials believed Iraq had such weapons. What would happen, asked Boyce, if Hussein "used WMD on day one" of an attack, or on Kuwait? "Or on Israel," Hoon added.
It also suggests that the purpose of British pressure to return to the United Nations was not to settle the crisis peacefully through the inspection system, but to build a legal justification for war. Blair is cited as saying that "it would make a big difference politically and legally if Saddam refused to allow in the U.N. inspectors."
Back to the U.N.
Blair had an ally in Powell, who was also counseling that another approach had to be made to the United Nations before an international coalition could be assembled to back the use of military force.
When Blair sat down with Bush at Camp David on Sept. 7, 2002, the president told him he had decided to seek a Security Council resolution demanding Iraqi compliance. Blair looked greatly relieved, according to Bob Woodward's book, "Plan of Attack," which was published last year. But then Bush looked Blair in the eye and warned that dealing with the Iraqi threat would still likely entail war.
"I'm with you," Blair replied, according to Woodward's book.
The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq began on March 20, 2003. Many inside the British policy establishment still feel angry and bruised about the invasion and its aftermath. Analysts say the leak of the documents shows the depth of those feelings.
"No doubt from the British point of view Iraq has been a strategic blunder -- not just a mistake, but a mistake that we're still paying for," said Clarke, of King's College. "Still, while no one in government would ever say it, the rationale from the British point of view is that our strategic relationship with the U.S. is more important than any single campaign we fight on its behalf. The basic calculation was: Right or wrong, it is in our interest to stand with the United States."
Staff writer Walter Pincus in Washington contributed to this report.