‘I MADE MY CHOICE’ AND STAND BY IT – Straw tells Chilcot

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Massive London demonstration in March 2002 against war on Iraq
Massive London demonstration in March 2002 against war on Iraq

In a 25-page memorandum submitted to the Chilcot Inquiry on Iraq, former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, said: ‘My decision to support military action in respect of Iraq was the most difficult decision I have ever faced in my life.’

But he concluded that he stood by his choice.

Straw wrote: ‘The memorandum does not cover all the issues (for example, preparations for the reconstruction of Iraq, or legal advice); rather it is intended as an overview of some key aspects of my role up to the decision to take military action. . .’

Referring to the 2001 attacks on the US, Straw wrote: ‘Immediately after 9/11 the foreign policy priority for the UK was Afghanistan. . .

‘We did of course become aware that, in the new post-9/11 environment, sections of the Bush administration in Washington, and sections of the Republican Party, were talking up the possibility of military action against Iraq to secure a change of régime.

‘Sir David Manning’s visit to Washington in early December 2001 therefore concentrated on this issue. I approved briefing for the Prime Minister and for Sir David on how we might influence the debate.

‘The advice to the Prime Minister and Sir David reminded readers that the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) had concluded that Iraq had had no responsibility for the 11 September attacks and no significant links to Usama Bin Laden (UBL)/Al Qaida.

‘On WMD, a number of proposals to strengthen the then policy of containment were made; on the possibility of military action to deal with Iraq’s WMD, our advice was that a new SCR would almost certainly be needed for this clearly to be lawful.

‘Iraq rose further up the UK’s public foreign policy and wider political agenda, following President Bush’s State of the Union speech of late January 2002, in which he spoke of Iran, North Korea (DPRK) and Iraq as forming part of an “Axis of Evil”. . .

‘Iraq ratcheted up a further gear in terms of its public profile with Prime Minister Blair’s visit to Crawford in April 2002, where both it and the Middle East were the major issues.

‘As the issue of military action by the United States became live, one of the arguments government faced was whether the UK should detach itself from the prospect of any active military alliance with the United States . . .

‘I shared with the Prime Minister the view that the best approach for the UK was indeed to “stay close” to the US administration and to seek to persuade them that any action against Iraq had to be through the United Nations. . .

‘In addition to serious questions about the legality of any UK involvement in military action without a refreshed UNSC mandate, there was no prospect of agreement within the British Cabinet or the Parliamentary party without one. . .’

‘(UN inspectors) Dr El Baradei and Dr Blix both duly gave further reports to the Ministerial Meeting of the Security Council on 14 February 2003.

‘Dr El Baradei concluded: “We have to date found no evidence that Iraq has revived its nuclear weapons programme since the elimination of the programme in the 1990s. However our work is steadily progressing and should be allowed to run its natural course.”

‘Dr Blix’s report and conclusions were, in contrast, more qualified. He said that so far UNMOVIC had not found any WMD or related prohibited items and programmes – only a small number of empty chemical munitions. . .’

By March 10, 2003, France made it clear it would veto a second UN resolution against Iraq. Straw said: ‘Reluctantly but firmly, I came to the view that to enforce Iraq’s disarmament obligations we had no option but to proceed with military action if Saddam Hussein did not respond to a final ultimatum which would be part of the decision to take this action. . .

‘The British Cabinet met in the afternoon of 17 March and decided to take part in military action against Iraq. . .

‘The Attorney General gave a written answer which explained his view that military action by the UK in the circumstances would be lawful; and I supplemented this by a more detailed memorandum (approved by the Attorney General) sent to the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, and published.

‘The day after, 18 March, the House of Commons approved a resolution to this effect.’

In his conclusions, Straw said: ‘In late April 2003 it became apparent that no WMD was likely to be found – subsequently confirmed publicly.

‘That, together with allegations that the 24 September 2002 dossier had been “sexed up”, has led to the widespread view that the whole basis of our military action had been founded on a fraud based on intelligence alone, and that we had either been negligent in our assessment of the intelligence and the case for military action, or consciously deceitful, involved in a terrible conspiracy with the administration of the United States.

‘None of this was ever the case. . .

‘My decision to support military action in respect of Iraq was the most difficult decision I have ever faced in my life. I had actively supported the military action in the Falklands, and the first Gulf War, whilst in opposition.

‘I had agreed as a member of the Cabinet the action over Kosovo and Sierra Leone. As Foreign Secretary I had been directly involved in the post-9/11 strategy which had led to the invasion of Afghanistan.

‘But those choices were much easier. Iraq was very different, and the moral as well as political dilemma were profoundly difficult.

‘I was also fully aware that my support for military action was critical.

‘If I had refused that, the UK’s participation in the military action would not in practice have been possible.

‘There almost certainly would have been no majority either in Cabinet or in the Commons.

‘It is also the case that during the fifteen months between the beginning of 2002 and the decision to take military action my assessment of the threat from Iraq did evolve.

‘It would have been extraordinary if it had not. In my case the more I learnt and observed about the régime’s behaviour, the more I became convinced about the seriousness of the threat to international peace and security which it posed.

‘But because no WMD were in the event found, I have of course thought greatly whether we could or should have acted differently. But we did not know then what we know now; nor in my judgement could we have done.

‘And one of the dreadful ironies is that we would never have known if inspections had continued without an ultimatum and the short time scale as our draft second resolution proposed.

‘All that would have happened is that the inspections process would have petered out; the unresolved disarmament questions would have remained unresolved, and the Iraqi régime would have been re-emboldened.

‘The question of whether to go to war has also been one of the most divisive, certainly in my political lifetime. It made many people very angry at the time, and subsequently. That and the failure to find any WMD has undermined trust. Above all, there has been the grave loss of life – of our military personnel and civilians, others in the coalition, and the many thousands of Iraqis. I deeply regret this.

‘But, to paraphrase Kierkegaard, whilst life can only be understood backwards, it has to be lived forward.

‘We did not have the benefit of hindsight. I have gone over again and again the judgements we made at the time.

‘Many were widely shared. “It is for the Iraqi régime to end this crisis by complying with the demands of the Security Council” was the view of the European Union, France and Germany included. It was my profound view too.

‘I made my choice. I have never backed away from it, and I do not intend to do so, and fully accept the responsibilities which flow from that.’