The meeting between George Bush and Tony Blair in April 2002 has been described as a turning point the run-up to the invasion of Iraq.
Blair visited Bush at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, on 6 April. The Chilcot report concluded that at the visit, “Mr Blair offered President Bush a partnership in dealing urgently with the threat posed by Saddam Hussein.
“He proposed that the UK and US should pursue a strategy based on an ultimatum calling on Iraq to permit the return of weapons inspectors or face the consequences.”
The report added, “The acceptance of the possibility that the UK might participate in a military invasion of Iraq was a profound change in UK thinking.
“Although no decisions had been taken, that became the basis for contingency planning in the months ahead.”
Yet evidence submitted to the Inquiry suggests that Blair’s preparation for the meeting was all about finding a strategy for regime change in Iraq.
Blair held a meeting at Chequers, the prime minister’s country residence, on 2 April. His head of communications and strategy, Alastair Campbell, was there.
In his published diaries Campbell said the meeting, “discussed whether the central aim was WMD or regime change. TB felt it was regime change”.
Blair admitted to Chilcot that he had been considering regime change since as early as 2001.
Blair said, “There were two ways of dealing with it—change of heart or change of regime. That was more or less as it remained throughout.”
The report described how, at the Crawford meeting, Blair persuaded Bush to take what it refers to as “The UN route”.
This involved allowing more time for weapons inspectors to search for weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). It also meant seeking permission from the UN Security Council to invade Iraq if inspectors were blocked.
The report said, “Blair considered that he was seeking to influence US policy by describing the key elements for a successful strategy to secure international support for any military action against Iraq.”
The UN route was never meant as an alternative to invasion—it was sold to Bush as the pathway to war.
In a memo to Blair on 25 March, then foreign secretary Jack Straw worried that most Labour MPs would oppose military action against Iraq.
He said, “Colleagues know that Saddam and the Iraqi regime are bad. But we have a long way to go to convince them as to
“a) The scale of the threat from Iraq and why this has got worse recently.
“b) What distinguishes the Iraqi threat from that of eg Iran or North Korea
“c) the justification for any military action in terms of international law”
Tellingly, he added, “The whole case against Iraq and in favour (if necessary) of military action needs to be narrated with reference to international law
“I believe that a demand for the unfettered readmission of weapons inspectors is essential, in terms of public explanation, and in terms of legal sanction for any subsequent military action”
Blair had similar worries. Earlier that same month he told one of his advisers, Jonathan Powell, that he needed to work out a “strategy” ahead of the Crawford meeting.
Blair said, “The persuasion job on this seems very tough. My own side are worried. Public opinion is fragile. International opinion—as I found at the EU—is pretty sceptical.
“Yet from a centre-left perspective, the case should be obvious. Saddam’s regime is a brutal, oppressive military dictatorship.
“So why isn’t it? Because people believe we are only doing it to support the US. And the immediate WMD problems don’t seem obviously worse than 3 years ago.”
He finished, “We have to re-order our story and message. Increasingly, I think it should be about the nature of the regime.”
So Blair told Bush that taking the UN route was vital if Britain was to join the US invasion of Iraq.
In the meantime Blair, Straw, Campbell and others would focus on building up evidence against Hussein’s regime – such as the “dodgy dossier” – to soften the appetite for war.
In the months leading up to the invasion, that’s exactly what they did.