The Secret 23 July 2002 Downing Street Memo:
The Inevitable War and The Dispensable Inspectors
JNV Anti-War Briefing 82
23 May 2005
shortened version of this briefing is available as a pdf
Posted: 23 September
On 1 May 2005, The Sunday Times published
a highly revealing memo of a top secret meeting in Downing Street
in July 2002, a crucial meeting which set Britain down the path
to war with Iraq. (The text of the memo is here,
and more commentary is here.)
The memo establishes that war against
Iraq was seen as ‘inevitable’ by July 2002; that
the British government was committed to participating in that
war; that the government hoped to secure political support for
what it called ‘regime change’ by manipulating the
political environment; that the chief means of doing so was
to issue an ultimatum to Baghdad which would provoke an Iraqi
refusal to re-admit UN weapons inspectors.
The 23 July 2002 meeting involved the major
decision-makers in the drive to war, including Tony Blair; Jack
Straw (Foreign Secretary); Lord Goldsmith (the Attorney General);
and Sir Richard Dearlove, the head of MI6 (the British equivalent
of the CIA), referred to as 'C'. The minutes which have been
leaked were written for another participant, David Manning,
Tony Blair's Foreign Policy Adviser (equivalent to the US National
Security Advisor), by his assistant, Matthew Rycroft.
BEING FIXED AROUND THE POLICY
'C', the head of MI6, the British equivalent
of the CIA, said that after visting Washington, 'Military action
was now seen as inevitable.' This is July 2002. He went on:
'Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified
by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD.'
The intelligence chief remarked that in
the US, 'the intelligence and facts were being fixed around
Jack Straw, Foreign Secretary, said, 'the
case was thin': 'Saddam was not threatening his neighbours,
and his WMD capability was less than that of Libya, North Korea
Straw continued: 'We should work up a
plan for an ultimatum to Saddam to allow back in the UN weapons
inspectors.' Why? 'This would also help with the legal justification
for the use of force.'
Tony Blair emphasised this: 'The Prime
Minister said that it would make a big difference politically
and legally if Saddam refused to allow in the UN inspectors.'
The Attorney General 'said that the desire
for regime change was not a legal base for military action.'
Tony Blair countered that 'Regime change and WMD were linked
in the sense that it was the regime that was producing the WMD.'
He added: 'If the political context were
right, people would support regime change.'
INEVITABLE - JULY 2002
In the conclusions of the meeting, it was
minuted that, 'We should work on the assumption that the UK
would take part in any military action.'
Tony Blair said, on 23 July 2002, 'The
two key issues were whether the military plan worked and whether
we had the political strategy to give the military plan the
space to work.'
The key issue was not how the world could
disarm Iraq - either by inspections or by war. The key issues
were whether the war plan would work, and if the 'political
context' could be created in which the public would 'support
regime change' and give the military 'the space to work'.
The day after this meeting concluded that
'the UK would take part in any military action', Tony Blair
said in the House of Commons, ‘We have not got to the
stage of military action. If we do get to that stage, at any
point in time, we will, of course, make sure that Parliament
is properly consulted’ (col 975) ‘...we have not
yet reached the point of decision’ (col 980).
War was certain. It was just a matter of
shaping public opinion, and drawing up good plans for battle.
In this strategy, the inspectors would be a critical tool -
not a tool for disarmament, but a tool for public relations.
THE WHITE HOUSE NIGHTMARE
The US/UK strategy was already clear in
July 2002. We pointed out then, in Briefing 19, that, in the
White House, UN weapons inspectors were seen as a potential
problem rather than a solution:
‘Key figures in the White House
believe that demands on Saddam to re-admit United Nations weapons
inspectors should be set so high that he would fail to meet
them unless he provided officials with total freedom.’
(Times, 16 Feb. 2002, p. 19) A US intelligence official has
said the White House ‘will not take yes for an answer’.
(Guardian, 14 Feb. 2002, p. 1)
According to one former US official, ‘The
hawks’ nightmare is that inspectors will be admitted,
will not be terribly vigorous and not find anything. Economic
sanctions would be eased, and the U.S. will be unable to act...
and the closer it comes to the 2004 elections the more difficult
it will be to take the military route.’ (Washington Post,
15 Apr. 2002, p. A01)
'The more hawkish members of the US defence
department are said to favour direct military action on Iraq,
which would be more difficult if weapons inspectors were on
the ground.' (FT, 5 Mar. 2002, p. 10)
HOUSE NIGHTMARE SCENARIO
US Secretary of State Colin Powell (allegedly
a 'dove') made it clear that the the inspectors were irrelevant:
‘US policy is that, regardless of what the inspectors
do, the people of Iraq and the people of the region would be
better off with a different regime in Baghdad. The United States
reserves its option to do whatever it believes might be appropriate
to see if there can be a regime change.’ The issue of
the inspectors was a ‘separate and distinct and different’
matter from the US position on Saddam Hussein’s leadership,
said Powell. (Guardian, 6 May 2002)
The ‘principals’ in the Bush
Administration ‘fear that Saddam is working his own UN
angle for the return of weapons inspectors to Iraq, whose presence
could make the US look like a bully if it invades.’ ‘
“The White House’s biggest fear is that UN weapons
inspectors will be allowed to go in,” says a top Senate
foreign policy aide.’ (Time magazine, 13 May 2002, p.
Tony Blair defended himself on 1 May 2005:
'The idea that we had decided definitively for military action
at that stage is wrong, and disproved by the fact that several
months later we went back to the UN to get a final resolution,
and actually the conflict didn't begin until four months after
But the US and UK went to the Security
Council for what turned out to be Resolution 1441 after Iraq
had accepted the return of UN weapons inspectors. The negotiation
and adoption of the Resolution delayed the re-entry of the weapons
The intended purpose of the Resolution
was actually to derail the entry of weapons inspectors into
Iraq. The Resolution was supposed to be objectionable - by imposing
tougher inspection rights on Iraq, and by threatening Iraq with
dire consequences if Baghdad failed to cooperate' - so that
the Iraqis would once again shut the door on the inspectors.
(For more documentation on this, see Milan Rai, Regime Unchanged
and War Plan Iraq.)
The Resolution was designed to be refused.
This strategy had its British roots in
the July 2002 meeting, when Jack Straw said: 'We should work
up a plan for an ultimatum to Saddam to allow back in the UN
weapons inspectors.' And Tony Blair added 'that it would make
a big difference politically and legally if Saddam refused to
allow in the UN inspectors.'
But Iraq refused to refuse the inspectors,
and Hans Blix and his colleagues were able to do valuable work.
They were well on the way to discovering that Iraq had no weapons
of mass destruction (the ultimate White House nightmare scenario)
when they were ordered out of the country on 17 March 2003.
The July 2002 memo confirms what was long
that the British Government had decided
on war by mid-2002;
that the evidence and intelligence was
'fixed around the policy' rather than the evidence determining
that dislodging Saddam Hussein (misleadingly
referred to as 'regime change') rather than disarmament was
the key goal from the very beginning;
that UN inspectors were seen from the
outset as a public relations device rather than as a means of
that Britain (and the US) were trying to
create a situation in which Baghdad would refuse to re-admit
the inspectors, in order to create a political and legal justification
for a war they were already committed to for other reasons;
that Tony Blair and his ministers lied through their teeth.
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