There are lessons to be learned from the mistakes made in the heart of government that led to Britain's defeat at the UNby Charles Grant / June 20, 2003 / Leave a comment
After the victory of coalition forces in Iraq, many people forgot the diplomatic defeat which preceded the conflict. With the benefit of hindsight, the US and Britain would have been better advised never to try for that second UN resolution, but simply to say-as they ended up saying-that resolution 1441 and earlier resolutions provided sufficient cover for military action. The fact that they tried and failed to win further UN backing made the war seem less legitimate than if they had never tried.
Britain and the US should have listened more attentively to the French, who by the turn of the year were strongly advising them not to go for a second resolution. The thrust of the French message was: “If you must go to war, do it on the basis of 1441; we would criticise you, although moderately. However, if you seek another resolution to authorise war, we shall fight against it.”
Bush would have been happy not to return to the UN, but Blair wanted the resolution to secure Labour party support for the war. So it was important for Blair to go through the motions of being seen to try to get UN backing-and that would have been the case even if he had thought the effort would fail. But the government believed it would get the resolution. When it did not, Blair was saved by Chirac’s behaviour which was (in British eyes) so unreasonable that France could be blamed for the absence of UN cover.
This is not a story of a particular department or individual making mistakes. Downing Street and the cabinet office, the foreign office and the ministry of defence are much more closely integrated than their equivalents in Washington, Berlin or Paris. And the individuals involved are mostly highly intelligent and committed people who work unbelievably long hours in the service of their country.
However, the system as a whole got some things wrong. In the words of one senior Whitehall figure: “Something was moving between France and Germany which we did not understand, and the US did not try hard enough with Russia…We did not read the French right, and we got Russia wrong.”
What is surprising is that so many people in London remained so optimistic for so long. When I visited Moscow in mid-February, many Russian officials told me that President Putin was prepared to use a veto to prevent a UN security council resolution. I did not believe them, thinking that Putin would not want to endanger his new friendship with Bush. But back in Britain, I relayed what I had heard to a senior figure in the government. He told me that what I had been told was rubbish. Putin would agree with the last person he spoke to, he said, and that person would be George W Bush. This figure then told me he was certain that the resolution would gain a minimum of nine or ten votes in favour.
The government also thought it unlikely that the French would dare to veto the resolution. Of course, it is easy to be wise after the event and if Germany and Russia had not remained firmly in the French camp, Chirac might have hesitated before threatening a veto. However, I made a trip to Paris at the end of January and I went to see several senior figures in the French administration who know me well enough to speak very frankly. They all assured me that Chirac was determined not to allow the passage of any UN resolution that gave diplomatic cover for war in Iraq. It was evident from these conversations that Chirac was not listening to the advice of some of his key officials, who were counselling a more cautious strategy.
Shocked by what I had heard, I wrote a short note to some of my Whitehall contacts, explaining that I could see no chance of Chirac softening his line on a second resolution. Some British diplomats shared my view, but the government as a whole continued to believe for at least another month that the French would become more flexible.
Some foreign office diplomats blame Downing Street for the excessive optimism-yet some overseas embassies shared that rosy view. Why did the government machine get things wrong? I am not sure of the answer, but part of it must be that Blair himself is so infectiously optimistic. He does tend to believe in his own very considerable powers of persuasion. His “can-do” approach to problem solving often rubs off on those around him. Some of Blair’s officials seem in awe of his charisma.
Another part of the answer is that the machine is sometimes too willing to believe what the Americans say. The state department advised that the Africans and Latin Americans on the UN security council would back a second resolution-but they never did. The national security council, under the leadership of Condoleezza Rice-a noted Russia expert-stuck with the view that Putin would not oppose the US. And some of the Pentagon advice was that the fighting would be over in “a week or so”-a prediction that turned out only a little over-optimistic.
“We underestimated the dislike of the US around the world-many small countries didn’t like being pushed around,” said one senior Whitehall figure after the war was over. “It did not go down well when the US said, ‘we will go to the security council, but if there is no resolution, we shall go to war anyway’…..we failed to pick up the warning signs of what was a kind of peasants’ revolt.”
That honesty is impressive-but also alarming, given how much money Britain spends on embassies and intelligence services. Perhaps the people in Whitehall should make greater use of foreign correspondents, who sometimes have a good understanding of what is going on in their host countries.
There are at least a couple of lessons to be learned from this affair. One is that the British government should not believe everything the Americans tell it. The other is that Blair might benefit from having a senior political figure close by, to question the advice of officials-and challenge his own judgements. In the words of one foreign office man, “every prime minister needs a Willy [Whitelaw].”