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
Published in June 2003 issue of Prospect Magazine
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 wh…