Condoleezza Rice, then national security adviser to US President Bush, was the first person UK ambassador to the US Christopher Meyer heard mention Iraq on September 11, 2001, he told The Iraq Inquiry yesterday.
Meyer told the panel probing the run-up to the Iraq war and beyond that the Bush administration had decided on a new course over Iraq after the September 11 attacks on the US. He said: ‘What was inevitable, I think, was that the Americans were going to bust a gut on the mandate of regime change.’
Until September 11 2001, there was a lack of real impetus over Iraq, which he said was more of ‘a grumbling appendix’. But ‘by the following weekend that turned into a major debate at Camp David’.
Meyer considered that Tony Blair’s meeting with President Bush at his Texas ranch in 2002, six months before the UN’s Hans Blix began looking for weapons in Iraq, was probably the turning point.
Meyer said that at Crawford Bush and Blair had a two hour dinner ‘with no advisers at all present’.
Therefore, he continued: ‘To this day I am not entirely clear what degree of convergence was, if you like, signed in blood at the Crawford ranch. (But) they weren’t there to talk about containment or strengthening sanctions.’
Meyer added that there were ‘clues’ in a speech given by Blair the next day when he mentioned the possibility of regime change for the first time. He said: ‘When I heard that speech, I thought that this represents a tightening of the UK-US alliance and a degree of convergence on the danger that Saddam Hussein presented.’
Meyer said he had informed London in the subsequent months that the Bush administration was heading for enforced regime change. ‘We were watching this stuff like hawks. The Foreign Office, I don’t think they can claim they were ignorant of the way things were going.’
He said the only discussion now was on defining the route to war, with Britain pushing for a multilateral, UN-led approach. ‘You didn’t have to argue that with the State Department but you sure as hell had to argue it with Cheney and Rumsfeld and to a lesser extent Condoleezza Rice.’
Once the US had agreed to wait for the UN to pass resolution 1441 on weapons in Iraq and sent Blix over to inspect, there was no time to come up with the evidence required before the scheduled start of the invasion.
‘The real problem, which I did draw several times to the attention of London, was that the contingency military timetable had been decided before the UN inspectors went in under Hans Blix. So you found yourself in a situation in the autumn of 2002 where you could not synchronise the military timetable with the inspection timetable.’
He said: ‘We found ourselves scrabbling around for the smoking gun. And we, the Americans, the British, have never really recovered from that because of course there was no smoking gun.’
Meyer, who was the ambassador in Washington between 1997 and 2003, added that he often thinks: ‘What would Margaret Thatcher have done? I think she would have insisted on a coherent diplomatic and political strategy.’
However he said he did not believe Britain’s foreign policy was dictated by Washington. ‘I wouldn’t say that it was as extreme poodle-ish as that. I don’t think that is a fair comment,’ he told the inquiry.’