How Bush Snared Blair
Three days after 9/11, George W. Bush began to notify American allies, and particularly England, of his intent to launch a military campaign against Iraq—a country unconnected to the terrorist attacks. What followed was more than a year of wrangling, as foreign leaders attempted without success to reign in Bush, until they finally faced the choice between siding with the president or making a historic break with the United States. This is the never-before-told full story of that struggle, as depicted in 500 Days, a new book by Kurt Eichenwald.
The Chilterns lie northwest of London, a vista of sweeping grasslands, honeysuckle-draped cottages and the crack of cricket bats on plush village greens. Church bells ring out across the leafy stillness, adding an almost mystical aura to the scene’s unearthly beauty.
Unobtrusively tucked into the chalk hills is Chequers, the 16th century mansion that serves as the official country residence of Britain’s Prime Minister. While Chequers is traditionally used as a weekend getaway, Tony Blair and his staff traveled there on Tuesday, April 2, 2002 for an in-depth and hard-edged debate about Iraq. Since Bush first raised the prospects months before that the United States would hit Iraq, Blair had cajoled and reasoned with the president in an attempt to guide American policy. But the march toward war had continued.
Now, the Prime Minister was scheduled to meet with Bush at the Crawford ranch in three days, and it would be his best opportunity to hammer out a strategy for bending the President’s will a bit closer to his own—if only he could figure out how to do it.
The British officials gathered at ten that morning on the first floor in the Long Gallery, and Blair described his predicament. “I believe, that Bush is in the same position I am,” he said. “It would be great to get rid of Saddam, but can it be done without terrible unforeseen consequences?”
British intelligence presented an assessment of the situation in Iraq. The state of its military forces was adequate, the opposition to Saddam was feeble, and Saddam himself—well, he was a maniac. Those elements made a combustible and unpredictable mix. The consequences of an American-led invasion were anybody’s guess.
Admiral Sir Michael Boyce, the Chief of Defense Staff, launched into a diatribe about the West’s near helplessness to influence the course of events in Iraq. Worse, he said, was the Bush team—members of the Administration were secretive, even hiding information about the plans for Iraq from their colleagues. It was hard to tell if anyone in Washington grasped the wider strategic picture.
“Only Rumsfeld and a few others know what’s being planned,” Boyce said to Blair, mispronouncing the name as Rumsfield. “You may speak to Bush or [Condoleezza] Rice, but do they really know what’s going on?”
Blair waved off Boyce’s doubts. “In the end, Bush will make the decisions,” he said.
Another problem—Blair had been pushing for a new U.N. Security Council Resolution against Iraq before launching a military campaign, but the Americans didn’t think it necessary. Bush and his aides believed that earlier U.N. declarations about Iraq provided a sufficient legal basis for war.
Lieutenant-General Sir Anthony Pigott, who had coordinated Britain’s efforts in Afghanistan, was invited to give his views. It was possible, he said, to launch a full-scale invasion that culminated with an assault on Baghdad.
“It would be bloody,” he said, “And it could take a long time.”
Even then, he said, victory could not be proclaimed with the defeat of the Iraqi army and the overthrow of Saddam. Preparation for war had to include a realistic plan for how to manage Iraq once the fighting ended. “The Americans believe they can replicate Afghanistan, but this is very, very different,” he said.
Boyce piped up again. A British soldier based in Tampa and working with U.S. Central Command, he said, had told his superiors in London that he could not get a read on the head of the group, General Tommy Franks. The Americans seemed to be planning for something later, maybe around New Year and, by all appearances, Franks was considering using solely air power and Special Forces to topple Saddam’s Baathist regime. If so, the game plan was woefully inadequate.
“If they want us to be involved in providing forces,” Boyce said, “Then we have to be involved in all the planning.”
The military men finished their presentation, and Blair stroked his chin. True, he said, the Americans’ planning and strategy was flawed. But that left him caught in a conundrum.
“Do I support totally in public and deliver our strategy?” he asked. “Or do I put distance between us and lose influence?”
So many uncertainties, so many problems. Only one thing was guaranteed, Blair said. “This will not be a popular war,” he said. “And in the States, fighting an unpopular war and losing is not an option.”
On the evening of April 5 at Bush’s Texas ranch, Blair took a seat at a dining table, his back to three off-white bookcases stuffed with historical works and autobiographies.
It was the first day of the two leaders’ summit to discuss the Middle East. Until a week ago, Iraq had been the front-burner topic. Then, world events had interceded. The Israeli Defense Forces had launched a military operation in the West Bank, the largest since the Six-Day War in 1967. The action, called Operation Defensive Shield, followed a series of attacks against Israel carried out by Palestinian armed groups, part of the uprising known as the Second Intifada. The fighting had intensified just three days earlier, with an Israeli siege on Jenin, a Palestinian refugee camp, followed by a ferocious counter-attack.
As they dined, Bush and Blair discussed the rapidly deteriorating situation. Any hopes for advancing the Middle East peace process were now dashed. And this was not an isolated issue, Blair said. He repeated the message he had delivered weeks before in a meeting with Vice President Dick Cheney—the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians had to be part of the strategy for Iraq.
“These are not divisible problems,” he said. “It is one problem with different facets, and this Israel/Palestine conflict is an important one of them. Resolution of that would have an enormously beneficial impact with the Muslim word.”
“I understand your position, Tony,” Bush replied. “But I don’t believe we can wait for one problem to be solved before we address the other.”
Blair expanded on his argument. The linkage was fundamental, and addressing it was vital to any success. But, to his frustration, Blair could tell that Bush didn’t buy it.
The Prime Minister asked where the Administration now stood in its strategy for Iraq.
“We don’t have a war plan set,” Bush said. “But I have set up a small cell at CENTCOM to do some planning and think through the various options. When they’ve done that, I’ll examine their suggestions.”
Blair again urged caution. If there were openings for resolving questions about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction without going to war, they had to be pursued. A new initiative with the United Nations, he said, could be presented to Saddam as his last chance. Bush didn’t have much faith in the U.N. approach. But, he said, he was no warmonger either.
“If Saddam allows the U.N. inspectors in to do their work, unfettered,” he said, “That would mean adjusting our approach.”
The reverse, of course, also held, Blair said. If the peaceful, international route didn’t work, then a coalition had to be ready to act decisively to remove Saddam. But, in preparation, they needed to pursue a public relations campaign to address the growing international hostility against a military action. Bush agreed.
Blair went to bed that night relieved. Bush, it seemed, did want to build a coalition of nations to work with the Americans on Iraq; he communicated none of Cheney’s disdain for such an approach. In fact, Blair mused, Bush seemed to tacitly distance himself from the hawks in his Administration.
Bush and Blair held a press conference at 11:00 the next morning inside the gymnasium at Crawford High School; any hope for meeting outdoors with reporters had been dashed by torrential rain. The men sounded as if they were in agreement. They were open to trying anything that might rein in Saddam Hussein. And if diplomacy failed, then war could well be the only alternative.
That night before dinner, Alastair Campbell, a senior Blair aide, mentioned to Bush how serene he had seemed during the press conference.
True, Bush said. Since the last time he had met with Blair, he said, he had changed his attitude about himself and his job.
“In the early days, I really got knocked when they put down the way I mangle words, and it really made me hesitant,” he said.
But now, Bush said, he had given up caring what the reporters thought about his verbal gaffes, and that made all the difference.
“The truth is, I have a limited vocabulary,” he said. “I’m not great with words, and I have to think about what I say very carefully.”
The two spoke for some time—about reporters, about Iraq—when Bush noticed that Campbell was one of the few in the room who wasn’t nursing a beer.
“Why aren’t you drinking?” Bush asked.
A shrug. “I’m a recovering drunk,” Campbell said.
Bush nodded. “Yeah. Me too.”
“How much did you drink?”
“Well, two or three beers a day,” Bush said. “A bit of wine. Some bourbon. But I gave it up in 1986.”
The two men compared their histories with alcohol. Bush’s drinking didn’t come close to matching Campbell’s daily binges.
“Having a breakdown and not drinking has been the best thing that ever happened to me,” Campbell said. “It was like seeing the light.”
Bush glanced at him quizzically. “But you still don’t believe in God?” he asked.
This was the second time that day the question had come up. In the morning, Campbell had fallen into a conversation with a woman on Bush’s email prayer group who had asked if he had faith in God. She seemed to pity Campbell when he told her no. And he gave Bush the same answer.
At dinner, Bush and Campbell engaged in a spirited conversation about running. After the meal, Blair grabbed a guitar and started strumming and singing along with Daddy Rabbit, a band hired for the occasion. The evening ended with a few after dinner toasts.
“All right, everyone can leave,” Bush announced, sounding jovial. “I want to go to bed.”
Blair’s pleas that Bush adopt a comprehensive policy linking Iraq and the Middle East peace process seemed to be bearing fruit. Almost three months after the meeting in Crawford, Bush informed Blair that he would be delivering a major address spelling out his Administration’s position on the Arab-Israeli conflict.
On June 24, a group of reporters were gathered in the White House Rose Garden when Bush stepped behind a podium. He opened his remarks at 3:47.
“For too long, the citizens of the Middle East have lived in the midst of death and fear,” he said. “The hatred of a few holds the hopes of many hostage….Today, Palestinian authorities are encouraging, not opposing, terrorism,” he said. “I’ve said in the past that nations are either with us or against us in the war on terror. To be counted on the side of peace, nations must act.”
Bush spoke of the obligations of the Palestinians for almost eight minutes. He stated that the United States would only support the creation of a Palestinian state once all of those conditions were met. Then, for just over a minute, he said that, once steps were made to improve security in the region, the Israelis had to withdraw their forces to positions held prior to September 28, 2000 [the start of the Second Intifada], stop settlement activity in the occupied territories, and release frozen Palestinian assets.
“The choice here is stark and simple,” Bush said. “The Bible says, ‘I have set before you life and death; therefore choose life.’ The time has arrived for everyone in this conflict to choose peace and hope and life.”
The Bush speech landed with a decided thud in the Blair government. British officials were at a loss to understand why the President had bothered making it. It could only stir up more enmity.
They found the concluding words particularly astonishing. In addressing a conflict between Jews and Muslims, the President quoted from the fifth book of the Hebrew Bible? Who thought that was a good idea?
The problem wasn’t with the speech’s premises; on those, Bush was right. Palestinian terrorism was undermining the peace process. Palestinian leaders were advocating violence. The Palestinian legislature was toothless, and needed real power that could only come from a new constitution. And Israel could not change its policies until the country’s security was assured.
No, the largest problem was with the speech’s timing in the midst of heightened hostilities. The Palestinians saw the Israelis as the aggressors and viewed terrorism as the only choice they had to stand up to a regional superpower. They considered demands by the United States to be suspect from the start. Publicly dismissing all of those realities would do nothing to calm the churning waters.
Perhaps, some of the British officials suggested, the speech was Bush’s attempt to satisfy Blair’s insistence that his Iraq policy must be folded into the pursuit of a broader Middle East peace initiative. If so, it failed miserably.
Officials from the Pentagon and Britain’s Ministry of Defense began three days of meetings on June 27 to discuss plans for a military strike against Iraq. And the Blair government reacted with near horror.
A report summarizing the conversations was sent to David Manning, Blair’s foreign policy advisor, and Jack Straw, the foreign secretary. Straw was bowled over by what he read. The Americans seemed to be planning a war based on a wishful thinking that bordered on fantasy. There was nothing to suggest they understood the magnitude and complexity of military action against Iraq, and they seemed to have reverted to the mindset that, if other nations didn’t see it their way, they would just go it alone.
On July 8, Straw prepared a three-page memo to Blair deriding the American plans as fatally flawed by logical inconsistencies and pie-in-the-sky assumptions.
The Bush Administration had “no strategic concept for the military plan and, in particular, no thought apparently given to ‘day after’ scenarios,” Straw wrote.
It blithely took for granted the dubious conjecture that its military could swoop in, then rapidly identify and destroy Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. The Bush team simply asserted that Kuwait would happily host a large-scale military action by the United States for up to two years, that other Gulf States would jump in with support, and that Iran and Syria would sit quietly on the sidelines as Western armies invaded their next-door neighbor.
“The support even of key allies such as Kuwait cannot be counted on in the absence of some serious groundwork by the US,” Straw wrote.
It also seemed that Blair’s discussions with Bush at the Crawford summit had been for naught. All of the Prime Minister’s conditions for British involvement in a war—first seeking new diplomatic action through the U.N., incorporating the Middle East peace process into any plan of attack, and pursuing an aggressive campaign to temper the global public hostility toward a military action—went unmentioned in the American report.
“The fact that the US plan apparently ignores these conditions causes me particular concern,” Straw wrote. “Are they determined to go ahead regardless? Does the omission signal a weakening of US commitment to work for progress in these areas before deciding to launch a military action? None of them is getting any easier.”
Bush could not simply prepare to celebrate military victory. There also had to be a strong assessment of the economic and political repercussions of the war itself.
“They must also understand,” Straw concluded, “that we are serious about our conditions for UK involvement.”
In the fall of 2002, members of the Blair government recognized that their efforts to counter America’s wagon circling about Iraq were failing. Each step of the way, Bush Administration officials nodded heads and mumbled kind words as the British urged caution, but nothing in the policies changed. No matter how many arguments he made, Blair knew, he had not yet overcome the war-mongering of the Administration’s hawks, particularly Cheney. And the Vice President was now making his case public - just weeks before, he had delivered a speech essentially declaring his own war on Iraq, complete with his own visceral attacks on U.N. weapons inspectors.
But Blair wanted to take another shot, and a meeting was scheduled with Bush at Camp David to again press the President about seeking a new U.N. resolution on Iraq before a military invasion was launched.