The US and UK approach on Iraq: Similar but yet so Different

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    21st April 2010

    This is a cross-post from Julie’s site here. Thank you, J. It is very well researched.

    The US and UK approach on Iraq: Similar but yet so Different

    “Saddam’s Iraq was a concentration camp above ground and a mass grave beneath it.” (Jalal Talabani)

    Few people would probably dispute the above quote by the President of Iraq, Jalal Talabani. Saddam’s regime was well known for its violent nature and the country had a long history of foreign intervention, chemical warfare, ethnic cleansing and religious persecution.

    However, the war against Iraq in 2003 was one of the most controversial political decisions in recent years. International institutions and law make it impossible to invade a country on the sole premise that a brutal and repressive regime is in place and thus has to be removed. In fact, Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter states that the use of force is only authorised under two circumstances. Either, according to Article 51, self-defense is required or, according to Article 42, a valid UN Security Council Resolution is given. In case of Iraq, both legitimisations are highly contested. While some argue that both, or at least one, were given, others insist both were invalid and the war consequently illegal.

    The precondition: The 9/11 atrocities

    “We, therefore, here in Britain stand shoulder to shoulder with our American friends in this hour of tragedy, and we, like them, will not rest until this evil is driven from our world.” (Tony Blair)

    The 9/11 terror attacks had an enormous impact on the external and internal power structures and policies of the US administration and the wider world. They marked the major turning point in the US and UK relationship under Bush and Blair which, arguably, would have never become so close without them.

    Blair was the first foreign leader to ensure the President that his country stood “shoulder to shoulder” with the Americans and his instant reaction to the attacks included three premises which determined his premiership until the end: First, unconditional support for the US. Secondly, a desire to unite the widest possible coalition against terror. And thirdly, the belief that Islamic fundamentalist grievances were connected to the need for justice to the Palestinians.

    The atrocities were a significant precondition for US and UK joint foreign policy over the next years, including the war against Iraq. It became an integral part of what Bush coined “the war on terror”. As a result, they changed the mentality of the Bush administration and put self-defence and conflict prevention on top of the political agenda. An administration which followed previously the traditional line of American isolationism, now embraced a proactive foreign and security policy.

    Even though Blair stressed that 9/11 was not an attack on America but the West, the atrocities ultimately happened on American soil and affected and traumatised the Americans far worse than any other nation. As a result, it was far easier for the US administration to justify whatever action against international terrorism, including the invasion of Iraq, than it was for their British counterparts.  Blair faced constant scrutiny and pressure from the media, the public, the opposition and even parts of his own party to justify his policy on Iraq.

    Against the background of the comparison between the US and UK approaches in relation to Iraq, the 9/11 terror attacks played a significant role by uniting Bush and Blair in their belief that international terrorism had to be addressed, rogue states had to be detained from gaining nuclear capabilities, and that it was morally right to get rid of Saddam. Ultimately, it was the shock of the 9/11 atrocities which created a strong bound between Blair and Bush, who had not much in common besides their determination to confront terrorism. And even in relation to that, their approach was often entirely different.

    Internationalism versus Isolationism: The ideologies behind the war

    “We live in a world where isolationism has ceased to have a reason to exist. By necessity we have to co-operate with each other across nations” (Tony Blair)

    Blair was interested in Iraq long before the Bush administration and repeatedly claimed as a response to the Blair is Bush’s poodle attacks that it was him who first addressed the problem of Iraq and the potential threat posed by Saddam Hussein rather than the President. The Prime Minister had already been involved in action against the Iraqi regime together with President Clinton, after they agreed that they would be ready to use force if Iraq failed to comply with the will of the UN which ultimately resulted in joint military air strikes in 1998.

    Blair’s willingness to engage in international conflicts also became clear in other military actions, such as Kosovo and later in Sierra Leone and Afghanistan. His belief in liberal interventionism is deeply rooted in his Oxford days when he was heavily influenced by the philosophy of John McMurray, especially by his doctrine of communitarianism, the idea that political power can make a difference and the moral obligation to use it. He firmly believed that it was not on the US alone to solve international crisis but that a multilaterist approach was required.

    This conviction was strongly emphasised by Blair when he delivered his famous Chicago speech in April 1999, where he outlined the doctrine of the international community. According to David Manning, Foreign Policy Advisor to Blair, the doctrine  is very “important in understanding the Prime Minister, not to assume that when we reached the point that he commits troops, he is doing this because it is something George Bush tells him to do.

    In this speech, Blair again pointed at the brutality of Saddam’s regime and compared him to Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic. According to the Prime Minister, it was impossible “to turn our backs on conflicts and the violation of human rights within other countries if we want still to be secure”. He thus challenged the premise that non-interference was always the right response and named conditions under which it was justifiable for a country to interfere in another country’s affairs.  Significantly, he made clear that “this speech has been dedicated to the cause of internationalism and against isolationism”.

    It marks one of the strongest differences in US and UK policy, with the Blair administration coming from a completely different ideological angle, since the Bush administration has been a primary example of US isolationism, before 9/11. According to Nigel Sheinwald, the successor of David Manning, there was growing concern in London when the Bush administration came into power over increased US isolationism when “unilaterist voices were at their height”. Indeed, in the first nine months of the Bush administration, foreign policy was not high on the agenda. There was clearly reason to worry, since it was Condoleezza Rice who heavily criticised Blair for his Chicago speech in 1999, and was categorically opposed to the idea that America should risk the lives of its soldiers abroad, instead of concentrating on domestic policies.

    Arguably these completely opposed underlying presumptions made it very difficult for both countries to have a common and unified policy on Iraq. Throughout the process which led to military action against Iraq, Blair would be constantly challenged by some of the US administration, most notably by Vice President Cheney and Defence Secretary Rumsfeld, for his multilateral approach, his determination to try to reach disarmament through the UN, plans for nation building in post-war Iraq, and his demand to revive the Israeli/Palestinian peace process as part of the overall Middle East strategy.

    Multilateralism versus Unilateralism: Going down the UN route

    Cheney’ people in particular believed that America didn’t need anybody. This was the most blatant, arrogant, insolent type of unilateralism (Lawrence Wilkinson)

    The British government faced strong opposition for its proposal to take the issue of Iraq down the UN route. Especially the neo-conservatives, like Cheney and Rumsfeld, but also Rice and Bush were critical of the approach. They rejected the idea of placing the United States’ national security interests into the hands of the UN, bound by denial of Saddam’s regime to cooperate, economic interest of the Russians and strong opposition by France. However, the Prime Minister made it clear again and again that without going down the UN route and trying to resolve the dispute peacefully, Britain could and would not be willing to take part in any military action.

    Britain had several interests to go down the UN route which were not fully supported by the US. Firstly, Blair believed that it was the best way to try to resolve the issue peacefully and, according to Sir Jeremy Greenstock, the UK’s Ambassador to the UN at that time,”it was the point of view of the United Kingdom that the use of force could not be justified unless every avenue had been tried to bring Iraq into compliance”.

    Secondly, the British government believed that international terrorism should be confronted by the international community or at least a broad multi-national coalition. According to Greenstock, “the United Kingdom had a different approach from the United States, to the extent that we believed that action on or against Iraq should be unequivocally collective”.

    Thirdly, they were keen not to undermine the authority of the UN, and thereby upsetting their European allies, such as France.

    Fourthly, going down the UN route was necessary for legal reasons, since the UK’s legal basis for going to war against Iraq was bound to Saddam’s non-compliance with previous UNSC Resolutions, and thus, according to Greenstock, “had to be based on Security Council Resolutions”.

    Finally, Blair knew that the British public would only support military action if he had UN support or at least had attempted to seek UN support. Otherwise he knew his premiership was threatened.

    In contrast, the Bush administration was prepared to take military action against Iraq without the support of the UN and even without its key ally, the UK. Rumsfeld made it clear that the US was prepared to take military action on its own. In relation to that, they were also not greatly concerned about upsetting other European countries by ignoring the UN.

    Most importantly, they believed it was unnecessary going down the UN route for legal reasons, since their official policy was regime change, something which happened in Kosovo and other countries before, without the authorisation of the UNSC. Furthermore, public opinion was not a great concern either, since Bush never argued the case for deposing Saddam Hussein on specifics. He didn’t need to. In the shock of 9/11 the Americans people gave Bush a licence to hit back against unspecific enemies. In the post-9/11 period, it was enough for Bush to stress the danger deriving from international terrorism and its cooperation with rogue states and the US’s strategic interests in the Middle East.

    When communication broke down at the UN, after the French refused to accept the second UNSC Resolution, the UK government was in an extremely tricky situation. Although they had unanimously secured Resolution 1441, a second resolution would have rounded up the issue legally and also would have helped to sell the war at home. Now they were in a situation where peaceful negotiations had failed and they were left with a choice of either undermining the authority of the UN and following the US into war, or backing away and risking the UK’s credibility and reputation as a military power.

    Again, it was a choice the US government did not have to take. According to Greenstock, Bush told Blair once that “we, ourselves, don’t particularly need a second resolution, but we realise that you do”. For that reason, nobody in the administration, except for Colin Powell and to some extent Condoleezza Rice, were keen on going down the UN route anyway, and the neo conservatives believed that their view of a weak and indecisive UN had been confirmed. According to Manning, the neo-conservatives in the Bush administration saw the UN as “an impediment and an obstacle” to their policy.

    Surprisingly, Rice had acknowledged, after being skeptical at the beginning, that it was also in the interest of the US to secure the respective UNSC Resolutions and Powell had a “much more multilaterists” approach right from the start. But Powell and Rice were pushed aside by Cheney and Rumsfeld who got impatient with the UN, after the failure of the second resolution, and hence the Americans refused to give the UN inspectors more time. Again, the UK position was different and, according to Manning, the British government “believed that the inspections should have been given more time to work”.

    Now they were seen as being pushed into war by the US and it clearly did not help the British government to establish a robust legal cover as well as a solid and sound justification for the UK’s participation in military action.

    Regime change versus disarmament: The issue of legality

    “It is important here to bring out a distinction perhaps between us and the Americans. Our view, the Prime Minister’s view, the British Government’s view (…) was that the aim was disarmament. It was not regime change” (David Manning)

    In terms of the underlying legal basis for going to war, the US and UK approach was also fundamentally different in key aspects. While the US official policy was regime change, the UK’s policy was disarmament. Again, it was a lot easier for the US to make the case than for the UK which was dependent on a very complex legal structure to cover up the invasion lawfully.

    The US administartion believed that they were able themselves to make the determination that Iraq was in material breach” and as a result, the approval of the UN Security Council was not necessary to obtain legal cover for going to war. They were determined throughout to ensure that they were able to decide freely on the issue of Iraq, without being tied to the UN, which they regarded as a sovereign right of the US. From the beginning of 2002 up to the invasion of Iraq, some in the US administration, most notably Cheney and Rumsfeld, also tried to establish a link between Al-Qaida and Saddam’s regime to justify the policy of regime change. According to the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff, the UK strongly rejected the claim on the basis of a lack of intelligence and “spent quite a long time disagreeing with the Americans about the link”.

    In fact, the policy of the US was illegal in terms of British law. According to the UK’s Attorney General, Peter Goldsmith, it would have been unlawfully for Britain going to war on the sole permise that Saddam’s regime was brutal and needed to be removed. He thus made clear that “regime change was not a basis for (..) lawful use of force” and the authorisation of the UNSC was required.

    In order to pursue the policy of disarmament, Britain argued with the danger of WMDs in allusion to Article 51 of the UN Charter, namely the right for self defence. But it would be wrong to take the WMD argument as the primary justification for the UK’s legal cover. Most importantly, the Blair administration went for the second option which authorises military action in relation to Article 42, namely a valid UNSCR.

    For that reason, Resolution 1441 was extremely crucial for the UK. Even though London still tried at that stage to disarm Saddam peacefully through the UN, the British government was determined to leave all options on the table, including military action. they clearly would have preferred to secure a second resolution, since it would have made it incredibly easier to establish legal cover for military action. However, they made sure that Resolution 1441 was drafted in such a way that it was enough in combination with previous UNSC Resolutions, namely 660, 678, 687, and 1137, to lawfully take part in the invasion.

    In particular Resolution 678, the legal basis for military action during the first Gulf war, and Resolution 687, which determined the conditions for the ceasefire between the UN and Iraq, were extremely important. According to Goldsmith, the legal advisor to the UN confirmed that “the original authority to use force in Resolution 678 could revive, if there were a material breach, but said it was for the Security Council to determine”.

    That was exactly what UNSC Resolution 1441 achieved for the UK which was adopted unanimously by the Security Council. It not only confirmed that Saddam remained in “material breach” and gave him “a final opportunity to comply”, but also stated in operational paragraph 4, that a failure to comply unconditionally and immediately and fully with the inspectors was itself a further material breach. As a result, it authorised “serious consequences”, as indicated in operational paragraph 13, which ensured that the UK did not have to seek a second resolution to legally cover military action.

    Again, it turned out that building the case for war was a greater challenge for the British than for the American administration, which derived not only from the multilateralist appraoch, but also their need for a different legal cover and keeping the opponents at bay at home.

    Nation–building versus The Pentagon strategy: The aftermath and wider implications

    “We don’t do nation-building.” (Donald Rumsfeld)

    What distinguished US and UK Iraq policy furthermore was the aftermath-planning. As established before, there were many differences and conflicts between the two administrations but no other topic was as often raised by British officials like this one and many of them outspokenly, in an almost unusual direct way, complained about the approach of the American counterparts. Here, the completely opposing underlying ideology of both governments became crystal clear again. London pursued a policy of detailed aftermath-planning and nation-building plans, including a strong role for the UN. There existed the firm believe that responsibility did not end with the removal of Saddam and a successful military campaign, but that it was also the duty of the coalition to help rebuilding Iraq.

    On the contrary, Washington’s policy was shaped by the thinking of the neo-conservatives. According to Sir Peter Ricketts, Permanent Secretary in the FCO, the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary stressed in conversations with the White House that “they must take planning for post conflict Iraq just as seriously as planning for military operation. The problem was that the Pentagon jealously guarded its control over the post-war period and was not greatly concerned about the advice coming from London.

    As a result, it took the British not only by surprise that the Pentagon was in full charge but was also registered with great concern and dismay. Jonathan Powell called it a “mistake” to allow Rumsfeld and his team to run the campaign and claimed that the State Department had been previously in charge of it, “had done the planning”, and hence should have remained in the driving seat.

    Further concern was raised by Lord Boyce, British Chief of the Defence Staff and one of the greatest critics of US post-war planning. He told the Iraq Inquiry recently that he was greatly “concerned about the anorexic nature” of the US participation before the invasion and Rumsfeld’s approach of “we are here to do the war fighting, not the peacekeeping”. He then summarised in a mocking and cynical way what he clearly regarded as inexcusable naivety from the American side:

    “As far as the Pentagon was concerned, (…) they just thought that Iraq would be fine on one day, that, having knocked Saddam Hussein down, that the place suddenly the following day would be a lovely democracy and everybody would be happy”.

    The differences in US and UK post-war policy became most apparent in two distinctive areas. One issue of conflict occurred again in relation to the involvement of the UN, where the British favoured a strong role and, according to Tony Blair, “wanted to bring [them] back in”. This was achieved through UNSC Resolution 1483, on which the Americans only reluctantly agreed on, and which outlined the areas of concern of the UN’s special representative, Sergio Vieira de Mello. However, he was killed in a terrorist attack in August 2003 and his assassination led to an immediate pull-out of UN personnel in Iraq.

    The second matter of concern was the Deba’athification, a policy pursued by the US Ambassador Bremer. The neo-conservatives were close to an Iraqi exile, Ahmed Chalabi, who extensively supported the idea of the Deba’athification and on whom the Americans primarily based their judgement. On the contrary, the policy was strongly opposed by London and parts of the Bush administration, including Condoleezza Rice. Jonathan Powell told the Iraq Inquiry recently that he rejected the idea and “there was absolutely nobody in London (…) who thought that disbanding the army or disbanding or having a purge on the Ba’ath Party was a good idea.

    Both, the Deba’athification and the disbanding of the Iraqi army, turned out to be two of the most fatal mistakes in post-war strategy, with even the Prime Minister admitting that it should not have happened.

    Addressing wider implications of the post-war period, a further distinction, was the different approaches towards Middle East policy. The British government pushed hard on the Americans to revive the peace process between Israel and Palestine because they believed that it was inevitable if the Islamic world would not to be alienated by the military action in Iraq. However the Bush administration did not share the assumptions by the British and did not undertake great attempts to make progress in the region, besides the publication of the road map for which the British had to push very hard.


    Apparently, the two governments shared the perception in the post-9/11 era that action needed to be taken in terms of international terrorism and confronting rogue states and their ambition to build nuclear capabilities. However, there are striking differences in the policy-shaping and decision-making process. Differences did not only occur on major issues, such as ideology, political philosophy, and legality. They also became apparent in smaller details such as rhetoric and the role of God in politics. Metaphorically one could say that both countries used the same frame but painted entirely different pictures.

    The second precondition, namely the set up of the two administrations in Washington and London, naturally led to discrepancies. It would be naive to expect a right-wing Republican Party and a centre-left Labour Party to share the same fundamental views on world politics. What clearly brought them together was the shock of 9/11, resulting in a shift in the perception of potential threats. Containment policy was not longer acceptable and was replaced by a pro-active foreign policy approach. There existed a strong belief, whether right or wrong, that war is sometimes the right catalyst to battle the roots of terrorism, and hence restore peace and security.

    But even though the US and UK formed an alliance in the case of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, it was impossible for both administrations to cover up the differences in the long run. In public, Bush and Blair always tried to speak with one voice on the issue of international terrorism, for the sake of providing consistency and unity. However, advisors and civil servants were keener to reveal discrepancies, especially during the ongoing Iraq Inquiry in Britain.

    The debate over the war in Iraq is not over yet. It will take many more years to close the chapter. Consequently, further interesting revelations can be expected to follow.

    These are “Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)” from Julie’s site, in case you want to read the anti case. The first one below is well thought through, and considers that the error in Iraaq is more in the follow-through planning than in the policy of invading per se. We get few like that written here in Britain, where it’s invariably – “we all know, don’t we?” Despite the growing evidence that Iraq was probably the right decision, and Afghanistan may well turn out to have been the wrong one, one was legal and the other not. And that’s the sole criteria, as ‘we all know’.

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    One Response to “The US and UK approach on Iraq: Similar but yet so Different”

    1. Self Hypnosis Online – Pure Heart, Simple Mind Newsletter, Vol.5, No. 21. Appreciative Relationships Help Resolve Conflict Says:

      […] The US and UK approach on Iraq: Similar but yet so Different « Tony Blair […]

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