Crawford, Texas and the pressure to ‘get Saddam’

George Bush; Tony Blair

Ex-ambassador’s evidence will bring more calls to try Tony Blair as a war criminal

BY Colin Brown LAST UPDATED AT 06:55 ON Fri 27 Nov 2009

President Nixon had the plumbers. Tony Blair appears to have had the cleaners. In his damning evidence yesterday to the Chilcot inquiry on the Iraq War, Sir Christopher Meyer, formerly Our Man in Washington, revealed that the shredders had been used to clean out some of the incriminating evidence on the build-up to the war in Iraq.

Meyer said that official telegrams and reports he had sent to the Foreign Office to brief Blair on intelligence about the Bush Administration's approach to Saddam Hussein had disappeared from the archive.

Even so, Sir Christopher's evidence guarantees that Blair will face renewed allegations of taking Britain to war illegally when the former Prime Minister is called before Chilcot in the New Year. It may be too much to hope that Blair is put on trial for war crimes, but after hearing Sir Christopher's damaging evidence, there will be more who want to see the former PM in the dock instead of using his lawyer's skills and his charm to evade the probing of the ageing Chilcot panel.

Sir Christopher said that no-one could know for sure what Blair and George Bush agreed in the privacy of the Bush ranch when they met in April 2002. There were no advisers, no note takers and no other witnesses for the private fireside tete-a-tete. As a result, there is no record of any private deal and Meyer could not be "entirely clear what degree of convergence was, if you like, signed in blood".

But the former diplomat left the obvious conclusion hanging in the air that it was at that meeting that Blair finally threw his hand in with Bush to pursue regime change against Saddam Hussein.

Until Crawford, Blair was careful to avoid committing Britain to military action

The very next day, Blair made an important foreign affairs speech and used the term 'regime change' for the first time. "When I heard that speech," Sir Christopher told the inquiry, "I thought that this represents a tightening of the UK-US alliance and a degree of convergence on the danger that Saddam Hussein presented."

Sir Christopher said that until the Texas ranch summit, Blair had been careful to avoid committing himself and Britain to military action to pursue regime change because there were "legal difficulties" for Blair in going to war simply to topple Saddam Hussein.

I remember Blair's visit to the Crawford ranch quite vividly because I was there, covering it for the Independent on Sunday. Before their cosy fireside chat, Bush drove up in a pick-up truck to collect Blair from his helicopter at the gates of the Bush ranch. The President was wearing a buckskin jacket and said a friendly "Howdy" to Adam Boulton, the political editor of Sky News, and the other broadcasters who were there. Blair climbed in and they drove off to the ranch.

We next got to see the President and the Prime Minister at a local college hall, where they held a joint press conference. It was there that the issue of 'regime change' was raised by Bush. John Sergeant, then political editor of BBC and now famous for his appearance on Strictly Come Dancing, was fast-footed enough to ask Bush whether he was actually committing the US to war for the reasons of regime change and he challenged Blair to say whether he supported the president.

My strong recollection is of an intake of breath when Bush blithely said he certainly supported regime change, but suggested that "Tony might be more nuanced than me". Blair was indeed more nuanced - and he had to be. My understanding at the time, and since, is that the "legal difficulties" referred to by Meyer were serious. The briefing I received at the time was that Britain could not go to war simply to change a leader it did not like. Under international law, that would be illegal.

However, thanks to Sir Christopher, we now know that the Blair administration was already preparing the ground to back Bush in his enterprise to "get Saddam". Sir Christopher revealed that he had received "new" instructions from Downing Street in March 2002 - just weeks before the Crawford meeting - brought to him by Sir David Manning, the prime minister's foreign policy adviser. These instructions were that the US determination to oust Saddam was an established fact "and it was a complete waste of time... if we were going to work with the Americans, to come to them and bang away about regime change and say: 'We can't support it'."

From then on, Sir Christopher hinted to members of the Bush administration that Blair would support regime change. "I didn't say just 'We are with you on regime change, now let's go get the bastard'. We didn't do that. What we said was 'Let's do it cleverly and let's do it with some skill'. That means, apart from anything else, go to the UN and get a security council resolution."

For Blair to let loose the dogs of war legally, he had to show that Britain faced a real and present threat from a potential aggressor. In other words, he had to prove that Saddam had the means to threaten Britain. Hence the need to establish the threat of the 'Weapons of Mass Destruction'. Without a plausible threat to Britain by WMD, Blair could not claim the war was legal.

Blair and his aides therefore maintained that the objective of the war was to neutralise the threat to Britain from Saddam's WMD, and that if regime change happened as a by-product of military intervention, that was OK by us. It is clear now that British foreign policy was rewritten in the rolling fields of Crawford by the Americans.

The pretence that Britain was threatened by Saddam's WMD arsenal has enabled Blair to maintain a defence against those who claim that the war was illegal and that he is guilty of war crimes. The fact that WMD were never found is unfortunate, but in Blair's mind - don't forget he trained as a lawyer - not relevant when the charge of being a war criminal is made against him.

Sir Christopher Meyer said yesterday: "We found ourselves scrabbling for the smoking gun, which was another way of saying 'It's not that Saddam has to prove that he's innocent, we've now bloody well got to try and prove that he's guilty'. And we - the Americans, the British - have never really recovered from that because of course there was no smoking gun."

The former diplomat's evidence has cracked the veneer of Blair's defence against war crimes. The test of the Chilcot inquiry team will be whether they are prepared to pursue the crack until it shatters.

On yesterday's evidence, there is little likelihood of that happening. The Chilcot panel - Sir John Chilcot, a trusted civil servant experienced in dealing with the Home Office and the police in Northern Ireland, Sir Roderic Lyne, a career diplomat, two historians Sir Martin Gilbert and Sir Lawrence Freedman, and quango queen Baroness Prasher - failed to follow up their questioning of Sir Christopher by asking him to spell out exactly what were the "legal difficulties" of conducting war for regime change.

And what about those missing notes and telegrams to which Sir Christopher kept referring? Chilcot wrapped up yesterday's session with a promise that the missing documents will be obtained by the inquiry. Yes, but only if the Government allows them to be discovered.

Ah well, grab a front row seat for Sir Jeremy Greenstock, the former British ambassador to the United Nations, who is next up. He is expected to give evidence that Britain and America knew Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction as far back as 1998. · 

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