Blair backed “regime change” in March 2002


By March 2002, the Prime Minister had offered Britain’s support to President Bush to bring about regime change in Iraq.


That is confirmed by a memo to him dated 14 March 2002 from Sir David Manning, who was then his Foreign Policy Adviser.  Substantial extracts from that memo, and from other official documents from that period, were published in the Daily Telegraph on 18 September 2004.


The memo reported on a visit to Washington that Sir David undertook at the Prime Minister’s request to talk to the US administration about Iraq, in advance of his meeting with Bush in Crawford, Texas a few weeks later.  He met, amongst others, Condoleeza Rice, President Bush’s National Security Adviser.


The memo begins as follows:


“I had dinner with Condi on Tuesday; and talks and lunch with her and an NSC [National Security Council] team on Wednesday (to which [British Ambassador] Christopher Meyer also came). These were good exchanges, and particularly frank when we were one-on-one at dinner. We spent a long time at dinner on Iraq. It is clear that Bush is grateful for your support and has registered that you are getting flak.  I said that you would not budge in your support for regime change but you had to manage a press, a Parliament and a public opinion that was very different than anything in the States.”


That is proof positive that by March 2002, a year before the eventual invasion, the Prime Minister had committed Britain to support the US in overthrowing Saddam Hussein.  There can be no other conclusion from Manning’s assurance to Rice that the Prime Minister would not budge in his support for regime change. 


It follows from this that, from the outset, the accusation that Iraq possessed terrifying “weapons of mass destruction”, and the demand that it give them up under UN inspection, was an elaborate charade to justify military action to oust Saddam Hussein.  It was part of a process of what Manning called managing the press, Parliament and public opinion, so that Britain could weigh in behind the US to achieve that objective.


That has been widely suspected for a long time, but it is difficult to see how even the Prime Minister himself could deny it now that there is documentary proof that in March 2002 his Foreign Policy Adviser gave the Bush administration an assurance that he would not budge in his support for regime change.


Was this a commitment to Britain supporting the US militarily?  To all intents and purposes, it was.  Short of Saddam Hussein being overthrown in a coup, or dying of natural causes, there was no other way of effecting regime change in Baghdad.  So a commitment to support regime change was a commitment to support, and join in, military action alongside the US.


Clare Short has said that she was told by senior figures in Whitehall that, by the summer of 2002, the Prime Minister had taken the decision to join in US military action against Iraq.  It now looks as if he took the decision in principle even earlier.


Acting out the charade

The purpose of Manning’s visit to Washington was to explain to the Bush US administration that if it wanted Britain as an ally in this endeavour then it would have to assist the Prime Minister in acting out this charade.  Manning said he told Rice that Britain realised that the US “could go it alone if it chose, but if it wanted company, it would have to take account of the concerns of its potential coalition partners”.


The Telegraph reports the next part of the memo as follows:


“Manning said he had warned Ms Rice that the weapons inspectors issue was key and had to be handled in a way that would persuade Europe in particular that America realised the war had to be legal. ‘Renewed refusal by Saddam to accept unfettered inspections would be a powerful argument’, he said.”


There Manning is trying to convince Rice that regime change must be dressed up as disarmament – the course eventually pursued – in order to attract support in Britain and Europe, not least because regime change per se is undeniably contrary to the UN Charter.  What had to be done was to make disarmament by weapons inspections the central issue, and to make Iraq’s (alleged) refusal to submit to, or co-operate with, weapons inspections the excuse for military action to enforce disarmament – which would, incidentally, lead to regime change.


Arguably, such action was already authorised by the Security Council on the grounds that Iraq had failed to fulfil the disarmament obligations agreed at the end of the Gulf War, and perhaps the Security Council could be persuaded to authorise it unambiguously.  In any event, regime change dressed up as disarmament was the route to go in order to maximise international support, rather than regime change per se, which was what the Bush administration was talking about at that time.


So, by March 2002 and perhaps much earlier, the Prime Minister had committed Britain to support the US in overthrowing Saddam Hussein.  Yet he spent the next 12 months pretending to Parliament and the public in Britain that his objective was merely the disarmament of Iraq.  He gave the impression that he had persuaded the US to go down the same route, when all that he had done was persuade the US to co-operate in his charade by talking about disarmament and going quiet about the real objective.


As late as 25 February 2003, a few weeks before he sent British troops into Iraq to kill and be killed, he declared that Saddam could stay in power, if only he would disarm:


“I detest his regime – I hope most people do – but even now, he could save it by complying with the UN's demand. Even now, we are prepared to go the extra step to achieve disarmament peacefully.”


This is from a man whose Foreign Policy Adviser had assured the Bush administration a year earlier that he would not budge in his support for regime change.


Other documents

The other documents revealed by the Telegraph also contain interesting material.  They include:


(1)      A paper dated 8 March 2002 prepared by the Cabinet Office Overseas & Defence Secretariat setting out “options” on Iraq and marked “Secret UK Eyes Only”. 

(2)      A memo dated 22 March 2002 to Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, from his policy director, Peter Ricketts

(3)      A memo dated 25 March 2002 to the Prime Minister from Jack Straw, marked “Secret and Personal”


The Telegraph headlined its front page story about these documents “Secret papers show that Blair was warned of Iraq chaos”.  That is bit of an exaggeration – none of them predicted the present carnage.  However, all of them expressed unease about what would happen in Iraq after Saddam Hussein has been ousted.


Jack Straw wrote to Blair:


“What will this action achieve? There seems to be a larger hole in this than anything. Most of the assessments from the US have assumed regime change as a means of eliminating Iraq's WMD threat.


“But none has satisfactorily answered how that regime change is to be secured, and how there can be any certainty that the replacement regime will be any better.”


The “options” paper said that the only certain way of ensuring success was to keep large numbers of forces on the ground for “many years”.  Even so, it went on, there was no guarantee that the successor state would not acquire “weapons of mass destruction”:


“While both Iran and Israel had weapons of mass destruction, even a representative Iraqi government would probably try to acquire its own.”


Iraq no threat

The most striking thing about these papers is that they all freely admit that Iraq hadn’t got much by way of “weapons of mass destruction” and was little or no threat to anybody (and had no link with al-Qa’eda).  This was not entirely surprising since the JIC assessment of 15 March 2002 said:


“Intelligence on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and ballistic missile programmes is sporadic and patchy. [...] From the evidence available to us, we believe Iraq retains some production equipment, and some small stocks of CW agent precursors, and may have hidden small quantities of agents and weapons. [...] There is no intelligence on any BW agent production facilities but one source indicates that Iraq may have developed mobile production facilities.” (Butler report, Annex B)


In his memo to Jack Straw, Peter Ricketts identified the lack of threat from Iraq as a “problem”, which would make it difficult to get support for military action.  He wrote:


“The truth is that what has changed is not the pace of Saddam Hussein's WMD programmes, but our tolerance of them post-11 September. …


“But even the best survey of Iraq's WMD programmes will not show much advance in recent years on the nuclear, missile or chemical weapons/biological weapons fronts: the programmes are extremely worrying but have not, as far as we know, been stepped up.


“US scrambling to establish a link between Iraq and al-Qa'eda is so far frankly unconvincing.


“To get public and Parliamentary support for military options we have to be convincing that the threat is so serious/imminent that it is worth sending our troops to die for.”


The Prime Minister had a solution to Peter Ricketts’ “problem”: it was to say that Iraq had lots of terrifying “weapons of mass destruction” and was an awful threat to his neighbours and the wider world.  The fact that this was not justified by the available intelligence did not appear to have concerned him.  A couple of weeks after Ricketts identified this “problem” to Jack Straw on 4 April 2002, the Prime Minister told NBC news:


“We know that he [Saddam Hussein] has stockpiles of major amounts of chemical and biological weapons, we know that he is trying to acquire nuclear capability, we know that he is trying to develop ballistic missile capability of a greater range.”


The “small quantities” that might exist, according to the JIC assessment of 15 March 2002, were transformed by the Prime Minister into “stockpiles” that definitely do exist.  Problem solved.  This was not an isolated instance of prime ministerial exaggeration, which had accidentally slipped out: he made several similar statements around that time – and he continued to make them over the next 12 months.


Cabinet government

A final point.  The “options” paper prepared by the Cabinet Office Overseas & Defence Secretariat was one of what the Butler report (paragraph 610) called “excellent quality papers” written by officials on Iraq.  But, according to Butler, these papers were “not discussed in Cabinet or in Cabinet Committee”.  In fact, the relevant Cabinet Committee, the Defence and Overseas Policy Committee, had ceased to meet altogether.  The Cabinet received oral briefings on Iraq from the Prime Minister, Foreign Secretary and Defence Secretary, and nothing else.  And presumably, the “excellent quality papers” on Iraq never went beyond this inner circle.


Butler (ibid) comments on this as follows:


“Without papers circulated in advance, it remains possible but is obviously much more difficult for members of the Cabinet outside the small circle directly involved to bring their political judgement and experience to bear on the major decisions for which the Cabinet as a whole must carry responsibility. The absence of papers on the Cabinet agenda so that Ministers could obtain briefings in advance from the Cabinet Office, their own departments or from the intelligence agencies plainly reduced their ability to prepare properly for such discussions.”


Clearly, Cabinet government has ceased to exist: the Prime Minister made all the decisions on Iraq and had a policy of keeping his Ministers in ignorance, lest they ask awkward questions.  But what a supine, and irresponsible, lot they were: they lent their name to the most important British foreign policy decision since Suez, which has produced carnage in Iraq, without insisting that they be properly informed.



David Morrison

Labour & Trade Union Review

October 2004




Since this article was written, complete copies of the 6 leaked documents have come into the pubic domain (see