Bush & Blair questioned
about Downing Street memo
On 7 June 2005, President Bush gave a press conference in the White House along with Blair (see transcript here). Reuters correspondent, Steve Holland, asked the following question about the Downing Street memo:
“On Iraq, the so-called Downing Street memo from July 2002 says intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy of removing Saddam through military action. Is this an accurate reflection of what happened? Could both of you respond?”
“Well, I can respond to that very easily. No, the facts were not being fixed in any shape or form at all. And let me remind you that that memorandum was written before we then went to the United Nations. Now, no one knows more intimately the discussions that we were conducting as two countries at the time than me. And the fact is we decided to go to the United Nations and went through that process, which resulted in the November 2002 United Nations resolution, to give a final chance to Saddam Hussein to comply with international law. He didn't do so. And that was the reason why we had to take military action.
“But all the way through that period of time, we were trying to look for a way of managing to resolve this without conflict. As it happened, we weren't able to do that because -- as I think was very clear -- there was no way that Saddam Hussein was ever going to change the way that he worked, or the way that he acted.”
This is a curious answer. He denied that “intelligence and facts were being fixed” in Washington in order to justify “removing Saddam Hussein by military action”, which means that Sir Richard Dearlove, aka C, the head of British foreign intelligence, is incompetent. The Downing Street memo says:
“C reported on his recent talks in Washington. There was a perceptible shift in attitude. Military action was now seen as inevitable. Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.”
If the intelligence and facts were not being fixed around the policy in Washington in July 2002, then one is forced to conclude that Dearlove was incompetent, since presumably he was reporting honestly on what he picked up in Washington.
The rest of Blair’s answer is an attempt to deny that a decision had been taken by this time to overthrow the regime in Iraq by military force. Going to the UN is presented as proof positive that he and Bush were pursuing disarmament by peaceful means, and that military action was made inevitable by Iraq’s failure to comply with UN requirements on disarmament.
The key fact that undermines this defence is that the Prime Minister didn’t want arms inspectors back in Iraq ever again. According to the Downing Street memo, he told his meeting on 23 July 2002 that “… it would make a big difference politically and legally if Saddam refused to allow in the UN inspectors”.
It isn’t obvious how a desire to see Saddam Hussein refuse entry to arms inspectors can be reconciled with wanting Iraq disarmed by peaceful means – which couldn’t be done without arms inspectors to be on the ground in Iraq. But it can be reconciled with wanting a pretext to take military action against Iraq with the aim of overthrowing the regime – it would be much easier for Blair to get domestic support, not least from his own backbenchers, for military action, if Iraq was refusing to admit inspectors.
The US/UK’s settled purpose from March 2002, if not earlier, was to change the regime in Iraq. Realistically, this could only be done by military means. For domestic purposes, the UK was anxious, if at all possible, to get the Security Council to authorise military action ostensibly to enforce disarmament resolutions, but which would inevitably lead to regime change.
But this tactic failed: in March 2003, the Security Council refused to pass a “second” resolution stating that Iraq wasn’t complying with its disarmament obligations, let alone authorise military action to effect compliance. So, committed as they were to regime change, the US/UK had no option but to go ahead without authorisation from the Security Council.
Bush took his cue from Blair and replied in similar vein:
“Well, I -- you know, I read kind of the characterizations of the memo, particularly when they dropped it out in the middle of his race [that is, just before the British election]. I'm not sure who "they dropped it out" is, but -- I'm not suggesting that you all dropped it out there. (Laughter.) And somebody said, well, you know, we had made up our mind to go to use military force to deal with Saddam. There's nothing farther from the truth.
“My conversation with the Prime Minister was, how could we do this peacefully, what could we do. And this meeting, evidently, that took place in London happened before we even went to the United Nations -- or I went to the United Nations. And so it's -- look, both us of didn't want to use our military. Nobody wants to commit military into combat. It's the last option. The consequences of committing the military are -- are very difficult. The hardest things I do as the President is to try to comfort families who've lost a loved one in combat. It's the last option that the President must have -- and it's the last option I know my friend had, as well.
“And so we worked hard to see if we could figure out how to do this peacefully, take a -- put a united front up to Saddam Hussein, and say, the world speaks, and he ignored the world. Remember, 1441 passed the Security Council unanimously. He made the decision. And the world is better off without Saddam Hussein in power.”