Jack Straw at the Chilcot enquiry: a blunt instrument

Jack Straw

Jack Straw’s evidence at the Chilcot enquiry into the Iraq war yesterday, and the discussion that it led to of deadlines and resolutions, tells an interesting and important story about the conduct of international relations and the problems that it causes. (You can read the transcript of Jack Straw’s session at the enquiry here.)

The enquiry summoned Jack Straw to give evidence because he was foreign secretary at the time of the Iraq war and was thus intimately involved in the diplomatic build-up to the invasion. The various interviewees who have given evidence have all carefully covered their own actions at the time, in some cases delicately suggesting that a different part of the machinery of government might have been responsible for whatever mistakes were made. A case in point is the famous, or infamous, 45 minute claim in the foreword to the September dossier: the then prime minister’s official spokesman Alastair Campbell claimed he thought that it had been approved by the intelligence experts, while Sir John Scarlett, who was at the time chairman of the Cabinet Office Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), said that he had not looked at the foreword because it was obviously political material. In this exercise in covering oneself, Jack Straw is a past master.

Central to the case involving Jack Straw is the question of the second resolution. The fact that Britain went to war in Iraq without the explicit agreement of a UN Security Council resolution in the spring of 2003 is controversial: does the absence of that resolution actually go further and make the war illegal? The arguments over this are furious.

Jack Straw’s view is that the first resolution was sufficient. This resolution, 1441, was agreed unanimously by the Security Council on 8 November 2002, after extensive and detailed negotiations between the permanent members. It is interesting that the five permanent members were agreed on how to deal with Saddam Hussein at this point, because 3 or 4 months later, they were bitterly divided. What happened? What went wrong in the international community?

That first resolution (read the text here) was intended to force Iraq into disarming its WMDs, sending in an inspection team backed up with the threat of invasion if Iraq failed to cooperate. A large military force was accordingly assembled in order to make that threat of invasion credible. There was international consensus on this strategy. Where divisions emerged was on the process that should be followed in order to decide whether Iraq was cooperating or not.

On this vital matter, the resolution read as follows:

“12. Decides to convene immediately upon receipt of a report in accordance with paragraphs 4 or 11 above, in order to consider the situation and the need for full compliance with all of the relevant Council resolutions in order to secure international peace and security;
13. Recalls, in that context, that the Council has repeatedly warned Iraq that it will face serious consequences as a result of its continued violations of its obligations;
14. Decides to remain seized of the matter”

Jack Straw explained to the House of Commons Select Committee on Foreign Affairs on 4 March 2003 that: “When the Security Council unanimously adopted Security Council Resolution 1441 last month it sent Iraq a simple message: co-operate immediately, unconditionally and actively with the United Nations’ inspectors or face serious consequences. The language could not have been clearer.”

But do “serious consequences” include war? On the previous occasion that the UN Security Council had passed a resolution leading to war against Iraq, resolution 678 of 29 November 1990, it had used the following words:

“2. Authorizes Member States co-operating with the Government of Kuwait, unless Iraq on or before 15 January 1991 fully implements, as set forth in paragraph 1 above, the above-mentioned resolutions, to use all necessary means to uphold and implement resolution 660 (1990) and all subsequent relevant resolutions and to restore international peace and security in the area;”

The words “all necessary means” were the UN code for war. Those words were missing from resolution 1441.

Furthermore, in the statements made at the time of the adoption of resolution 1441, the British ambassador to the United Nations had declared that:

“We heard loud and clear during the negotiations the concerns about “automaticity” and “hidden triggers” — the concern that on a decision so crucial we should not rush into military action; that on a decision so crucial any Iraqi violations should be discussed by the Council. Let me be equally clear in response, as a co-sponsor with the United States of the text we have just adopted. There is no “automaticity” in this resolution. If there is a further Iraqi breach of its disarmament obligations, the matter will return to the Council for discussion as required in paragraph 12. We would expect the Security Council then to meet its responsibilities.”

By what does “meet its responsibilities” mean? Along with “serious consequences”, the language could indeed have been clearer. Jack Straw, in his words on 4 March 2003, was wrong.

The truth is that the issue of whether a second resolution was a precondition of invading Iraq was fudged. There was no agreement among the member states – there was no agreement within some of the member states! – meaning that the careful wording of resolution 1441 was a record of disagreement, not a record of agreement.

Jack Straw argued in a debate on the matter in the House of Commons on 25 November 2002 that:

“Resolution 1441 does not stipulate that there has to be a second Security Council resolution to authorise military action in the event of a further material breach by Iraq. The idea that there should be a second Security Council resolution was an alternative discussed informally among members of the P5 of the Security Council and the elected 10 during the weeks of negotiation, but no draft to that effect was ever tabled by any member of Security Council, nor put to the vote. Instead, every member of the Security Council voted for and accepted this text.”

But the absence of such an additional draft resolution could easily have been due to the absence of the words “all necessary means” from resolution 1441. The requirement for a second resolution went without saying. The clever wording of 1441 may have solved one problem but instead created another, bigger one.

The public did not know at the time, but revelations since have told us, that the government’s understanding of the legal position during the period that resolution 1441 was being negotiated was that a second resolution would be necessary to authorise war, the wording of 1441 itself being insufficient. The Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, only provided his revised advice concluding that war was permissible without a second resolution and on the strength of 1441 alone on 17 March 2003.

Notwithstanding this legal advice, there was nevertheless an effort by Britain and America to get a second resolution adopted by the Security Cou
ncil to give them UN approval for the war. The passage of such a resolution would have satisfied a great many critics of the Anglo-American policy, and was thus worth striving for. However, it would have required the positive votes of 9 out of the 15 members of the Security Council and avoided the veto of France, Russia or China. This level of support was not forthcoming.

The most prominent opponent of the second resolution, when it came, was the French president, Jacques Chirac. He was of the opinion that the efforts to disarm Iraq using the combination of inspections and the threat of war were working, and should be continued. What was the urgency in turning that threat of war into reality?

Here we find a second flaw in the UN strategy. Not only was there no agreement on how to take the crucial, subsequent decision to go to war, there turned out to be a time limit inherent in the military pressure that had nowhere been acknowledged by the decision-makers. It simply was not possible to keep an invasion force on stand-by for months on end, in readiness to invade when called upon. Jack Straw said to the Chilcot enquiry that “I talked to Secretary Powell about his judgment about how long you could keep such a large expeditionary force at a state of alert without it, as it were, degrading. You know much better than I, you can’t continue them in that state of readiness for long, but the advice which I got, as well as from our own people, but it was crucial to get his take on what the United States felt, was late March/early April.”

This was not a deadline expressed in the programme of inspection and disarmament. Again, there is an unfavourable comparison with the previous war with Iraq: the Kuwait resolution 678 adopted on 29 November 1990 set down an explicit deadline of 15 January 1991 for compliance. (In the event, air attacks started on 17 January.)

The problem posed by this sudden emergence of a deadline was that it undermined the credibility of the inspections process. It was this that Jacques Chirac could not support.

We find here a third failure of British policy, a failure to understand the French.

Jacques Chirac gave an interview on French TV to explain his policy and the reasoning behind it. (You can read a transcript of that interview here.)

The central statement of that interview, which was broadcast on the BBC and elsewhere, was this: “Ma position, c’est que, quelles que soient les circonstances, la France votera non parce qu’elle considère ce soir qu’il n’y a pas lieu de faire une guerre pour atteindre l’objectif que nous nous sommes fixé, c’est-à-dire le désarmement de l’Iraq.”

This translates into English as “My position is that, regardless of the circumstances, France will vote “no” because she considers this evening that there are no grounds for waging war in order to achieve the goal we have set ourselves, i.e. to disarm Iraq.” But what does this mean?

In front of the Chilcot enquiry, Jack Straw said this:

“I know there has been some textual analysis of the use by President Chirac of the word “Le soir”, but I watched him say this and I took this as no more than saying, “This evening”, comma, and then he announces, “France will, whatever the circumstances”, he says, right? If he was saying, “Look, just for tonight, we are going to veto, but not tomorrow”, he would have said that, but this was a great Chiracian pronouncement. “Whatever the circumstances”, he says, “La France will…”

But what were the circumstances Jacques Chirac was referring to? The previous part of the interview discussed two scenarios: one where France was in the majority on the Security Council in opposing the Anglo-American second resolution; the second was where France was in a minority or alone in its opposition. Would France really vote No in such circumstances, dropping the “diplomatic atomic bomb”? Yes, said President Chirac, it would, even in those circumstances.

He went on in that interview to say:

“Je le répète: la guerre est toujours la pire des solutions. Et la France, qui n’est pas un pays pacifiste, qui ne refuse pas la guerre par principe, qui le prouve d’ailleurs en étant le premier contributeur de forces de l’OTAN actuellement, notamment dans les Balkans, la France n’est pas un pays pacifiste. La France considère que la guerre, c’est la dernière étape d’un processus, que tous les moyens doivent être utilisés pour l’éviter en raison de ses conséquences dramatiques.”

In English:

“I repeat, war is always the worst solution. And France, which is not a pacifist country, which does not reject war in principle, which proves it by being the leading contributor of forces to Nato at present, notably in the Balkans, France is not a pacifist country. France considers that war is the final step in the process, when all other means have been tried in order to avoid it because of its dramatic consequences.”

This is not the argument of someone fundamentally opposed to the strategy of disarming Saddam Hussein under threat of invasion. This is the argument of someone arguing over the timing, and the urgency. This is something that Jack Straw did not, or chose not to, understand.

To try to make a foreign policy without understanding the opinions and strategies of major players is a certain route to failure. That is where the British policy on Iraq ended up.

What conclusions can we draw from this sorry tale?

First, diplomatic drafting can be part of the problem, not part of the solution. In the case of 1441, it postponed the moment of decision, it did not embody it. The failure to think through the consequences of this postponement damaged the United Nations severely.

Secondly, war is not an easy option, a threat that can be turned on or off like a tap. The strategy of threaten and inspect had a built-in expiry date, which was never established or articulated clearly in the minds of its supporters. The experience of Blair’s previous wars, in Kosovo and Sierra Leone, had given the impression that military force could be applied like a scalpel, but it can’t. It is more of a blunt instrument.

Thirdly, there is the Anglo-French disagreement. The British tried to rally European support for the American policy, the French tried to rally support against it. In the event, neither succeeded, leaving Europe essentially absent from the most important decision in world politics of the decade.

Finally, one cannot avoid speculating further about what might have happened if Tony Blair’s promise in 2004 of a referendum on the constitutional treaty had been fulfilled. Can we really imagine that Jack Straw would have happily campaigned for a Yes vote in that referendum on the grounds that it would enable stronger foreign policy cooperation between Britain and France?

About the Author