New evidence has emerged which shows that British Prime Minister Tony Blair and President George W. Bush agreed to take military action against Iraq even if UN Security Council Resolution 1441 was vetoed.
In the following narrative the dates are important.
A letter dated 17 October 2002 from Matthew Rycroft, Tony Blair’s private secretary, to Mark Sedwill, private secretary to then British Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, shows that Blair and Bush had agreed that they would take action against Iraq without a resolution if it were found that Saddam Hussein was in clear breach of the earlier resolutions.
As we now know, there was no further separate UN endorsement for military action but the allies decided to go to war anyway once it became clear that France and Russia were going to veto any further UN Security Council Resolution that specifically permitted military action. The leaders of the Coalition of the Willing eventually argued that Resolution 1441 gave them the right to invade and disarm Iraq and that no further resolution was required.
The letter is extremely significant because it shows that, by at least mid-October 2002, both leaders had already made the decision to invade Iraq even if UNSC Resolution 1441 had been vetoed. As it happened, UNSC Resolution 1441 went through unanimously on the 8 November 2002.
So where does the then Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, fit into all this?
Howard, of course, was a close ally of both Bush and Blair. Bush had pushed for a UN resolution to force Iraq to comply with the disarmament demands of previous resolutions and that failure to comply with the new proposed resolution should result in Iraq being disarmed by military force. On the 12 September 2002 Bush gave a speech to the UN outlining the US case and proposing the resolution. After intense negotiations that went on for some eight weeks a wording was agreed upon that enabled UNSC Resolution 1441 to go through. The rest, as they say, is history.
The big question now is, did John Howard know of the secret agreement between Blair and Bush, an agreement which more than likely was struck when Blair dined with Bush at Camp David on the evening of 7 September 2002 after Bush had spent most of that day with his national security team ‘finalizing his decision on the resolution’.(1) Is it a coincidence that it was also on this day that Bush had had a telephone conversation with Howard about the forthcoming resolution?(2) A little over two weeks later Howard was in London having talks with Tony Blair. On 25 September 2002, Howard gave a doorstop interview in London just after his meetings with Blair. A reporter asked him:
Prime Minister, the three former prime ministers and the former governor general have come out urging you not to back a US and UK strike without UN sanctions. Do you have a comment on that?
Howard’s reply was this:
Yes, I have got a comment. Right at the moment, Australia is strongly supporting the attempts of the United States and Britain to obtain Security Council support for a resolution on this issue. It is clearly not in Australia's interests for me to speculate as to what this country might do if those attempts fail. The right thing for Australia is for me to support those current attempts and to refrain from any comment as to what might be Australia's attitude if those bona fide attempts are not successful. Thank you.
In retrospect and knowing what we know now, his answer is, at the very least, telling. The phrasing, as always with Howard, is carefully chosen. One has to ask, however, why is it not in Australia’s interests for him “to speculate as to what this country might do if those attempts fail”?
And why was it “the right thing” for him “to refrain from any comment as to what might be Australia's attitude if those bona fide attempts are not successful”? It begs the question, was Howard privy to Blair and Bush’s agreement? And, more importantly, had Howard become a silent partner in that agreement since events, as it transpired, would be in line with such an agreement?
It is significant that Howard did not mention this September 2002 meeting with Blair in his autobiography. The upshot here is: Was this the meeting where Howard committed Australia to war – even if UNSC Resolution 1441 had been defeated? Because, if it was, Howard is very much guilty of misleading the Australian people and the Australia Parliament to whom he had insisted that he had not made a decision about going to war until almost the very eve of the invasion.
History will not be kind to Howard. The evidence so far, while only circumstantial, is fast becoming compelling. It is only a matter of time before the truth will eventually be told.
(1) George W. Bush, Decision Points. (New York: Crown Publishers, 2010.) pp. 238-239.
(2) John Howard, Lazarus Rising: A Personal and Political Autobiography. (Sydney: HarperCollins Publishers, 2010.) pp. 432-433.