The gist of the Bush-Blair secret letters controversyon 3 June 2014
By Stephen Benedict Dyson
The Chilcot Inquiry into Britain’s participation in the Iraq War has finally reached agreement with the Cabinet Office on the publication of correspondence and records of conversations between Tony Blair and George W. Bush. After a long stand-off, Sir John Chilcot has settled for permission to publish “the gist” of the communications bolstered by selected quotes - “the minimum necessary to enable the Inquiry to articulate its conclusions”.
The Bush – Blair relationship was a big part of why Britain went to war, and makes for a fascinating study of decision making at the top. When I interviewed Bush administration insiders about the president’s decision making, several told me that they believed Blair to have the best insight of anyone into how Bush’s mind worked. It is a shame to lose the detail of the Bush - Blair interactions, and the all-too-rare chance to compare what political leaders say in public with what they say behind closed doors. The “gist and quotes” agreement is better than nothing, but what questions will be left unanswered by the release of only part of the record?
We have known for some time that Bush, fearing that Blair’s government might fall over the issue, suggested to the prime minister that the UK need not participate in the invasion. Do the letters contain any further offers from Bush to Blair to stay out of the war with no hard feelings? Did Bush acknowledge or address any of the concerns of the UK public and political elite on the wisdom of going to war?
Blair’s side of the correspondence might have shed further light on the controversies that have dogged him since his Iraq decisions. It seems that Blair agreed at a Crawford, Texas meeting with Bush in April 2002 that the Saddam regime should be ended and that this would likely require the use of force. Yet Blair sought to establish some prerequisites for British participation in the attack: the U.S. would first seek UN endorsement, build a substantial coalition, and make maximum effort on Israel-Palestine issues. Britain’s Ambassador to the U.S., Sir Christopher Meyer, felt that these “buts” in Britain’s “yes, but” position were quickly forgotten by the Americans.
Does the correspondence answer the key question about the date and the strength of the commitment Blair gave to Bush to lead Britain into the war? How often, and how forcefully, did Blair press his conditions for British participation? How often, and how forcefully, did Blair raise the issue of what would come after the invasion? He was said to be frustrated at the absence of much visible planning for the postwar, but also to believe that Bush’s government, with an experienced team of heavy hitters in the top foreign policy positions, must surely know what it is doing. The “gist” of what Blair said and wrote should give us some insight on these issues, but a complete release would have shown us how hard Blair worked to make Bush pay attention to British concerns.
Hiding the full record strikes a discordant note given revelations about the ability of governments to monitor the private emails, text messages, and phone calls of ordinary people discussing matters of much less public interest. The people’s quotidian affairs seem to be the legitimate business of government but, to paraphrase one of our most venerable political commentators, world peace is apparently none of ours. The Chilcot report, “gist and quotes” and all, will add to the information we already have on the Iraq decisions. But given how central the Bush – Blair relationship was to the war’s inception, we must mourn this lost opportunity to examine the intimate records of its operation.
Stephen Benedict Dyson is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Connecticut.
Image: Adrian Clark CC BY