Inconvenient News,
       by smintheus

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

  Another witness speaks about Tony Blair's march to war

This week the Guardian has published extracts from the weekly diary kept by the former British Home Secretary, David Blunkett. Tomorrow's extracts concern the planning for the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Blunkett has come across as a sniveling suck-up to Tony Blair, and more interested in the personal politics within the Cabinet and perceived slights to him, than in actual policy. As a diary, it is depressingly poor stuff--especially when compared to Robin Cook's diary on the same period, which I've drawn attention to repeatedly on line.

Still, Blunkett manages to confirm in a general way the much sharper picture drawn by Cook of several important episodes. In particular, here is Blunkett's description of the first important cabinet meeting on Iraq policy.

March 7 2002

At cabinet we had a very good discussion about Iraq. I talked about where the real message was: Why aren't you doing something about the Middle East and the Palestine-Israeli conflict? Why are you just backing the Americans? I also drew on the steel industry problems and how this had changed the climate of our automatically backing the Americans.

It struck me that a bit of reciprocity wouldn't come amiss.

Apart from Jack Straw and Geoff Hoon who had clearly got the message to be gung-ho, everyone else was drawing the conclusion that we needed to go into depth with this. In the end Tony said: "Look, the management hasn't lost its marbles. We do know these things. We are not going to rush in." But we all fear that they will.


Here is what Robin Cook had to say about the same meeting, in his diary:

Thursday March 7: A real discussion at cabinet. Tony permitted us to have the debate on Iraq which David and I had asked for. For the first time I can recall in five years, Tony was out on a limb.

David was first over the top. Being now home secretary he cunningly camped on the need for a proper legal authority for any action: "What has changed that suddenly gives us the legal right to take military action that we didn't have a few months ago? Has anybody asked the legal opinion of the attorney-general, and what is he saying?"

Pat Hewitt lamented that we were expected to listen to US worries about Iraq when we could not get them to listen to us before slapping higher tariffs on our steel exports. "We are in danger of being seen as close to President Bush, but without any influence over President Bush."

I am told that in the old days prime ministers would sum up the balance of view in the discussion. This would be simple in the present case as all contributions pointed in one direction. However, Tony does not regard the cabinet as a place for decisions. Normally he avoids having discussions in cabinet until decisions are taken and announced to it.

Tony appeared totally unfazed at the fact that on this occasion the balance of discussion pointed strongly in the reverse direction of his intentions. Rather than attempt to sum up the discussion of this supreme body of collective government, he responded as if he was replying to a question-and-answer session from a party branch.

He was patient with us, but he was firm where he saw Britain's national interests lie: "I tell you that we must steer close to America. If we don't we will lose our influence to shape what they do."

This was the last cabinet meeting at which a large number of ministers spoke up against the war. I have little sympathy with the criticism of Tony that he sidelined the cabinet over Iraq. On the contrary, over the next six months we were to discuss Iraq more than any other topic, but only Clare Short and I ever expressed frank doubts about the trajectory in which we were being driven.


Oddly, Blunkett's memoir omits any discussion of the legal issue, which Cook rightly held to be an extremely strong point against invading Iraq. This demonstrates the depressing sloppiness of Blunkett's (edited) diary. In this case, his March 7 entry confirms little more than the simple fact that most of the Cabinet was against an attack on Iraq.

That said, what do we learn from this new diary?

That in the fall and winter of 2001, coordination between the US and UK regarding Afghanistan was virtually non-existent, and that British planning was so chaotic that Blair could not get the Ministry of Defense to follow basic instructions.

That already by January 2002, the Brits were accusing the U.S. of ignoring the need for reconstruction in Afghanistan.

That by September 2002, in the British Cabinet only Cook and Clare Short were actively opposing the invasion of Iraq, all the others having fallen in line with Blair's wishes. Blunkett and others were talking about pushing Cook out of the Cabinet for his obstinence on Iraq.

That Blunkett paid little attention to the government dossiers on alleged Iraqi WMD, since, he claims, he didn't think they would matter much.

That the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, decided only shortly before the invasion began to fully back Blair's position on war. Blunkett thinks that Blair would have sacked Brown after the invasion if he had not backed it strongly.

That the British army had no interest in nor plan for policing the areas of Iraq they'd over-run, and thought it wasn't their job to stop the looting that broke out.

What is most surprising to learn from Blunkett's diary, I suppose, is that such a feckless ninny could occupy an important position in the British government, as it conspired with an equally incompetent Bush administration to drag our countries to war.

Crossposted at DowningStreetMemo.com

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