It was the end of January 2003. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell was five days away from giving a critical speech at the U.N. Security Council, laying out the case that Iraq was hiding weapons of mass destruction and posed a danger to world peace.
But huddled with aides at the White House, President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair were not sure there was enough evidence to convince the Security Council. Without the council’s explicit authorization, their plans for an invasion to depose Saddam Hussein could be difficult to defend under international law.
Bush proposed an alternative: paint a U.S. spy plane in United Nations colors and see if that didn’t tempt Hussein’s forces to shoot at it. In any case, he said, the war was “penciled in” for March 10 and the United States would go ahead with or without a second U.N. resolution.
Blair replied that he was “solidly with” the president.
That is the gist of an account of the Jan. 31, 2003, meeting contained in the new edition of “Lawless World,” a book by British author Philippe Sands. He has not identified the writer of the memorandum on which the account is based, but British media reports say it was one of the aides in attendance: Sir David Manning, then security advisor to Blair and now the British ambassador in Washington.
A spokesman for Blair on Friday refused to address the allegations but repeated Downing Street’s insistence that there was no decision to commit British forces to war in Iraq until after it was authorized by Parliament on March 18, two days before the invasion was launched.
A spokesman for Manning said the ambassador would not comment.
Sands, 45, is a professor of international law and a founding member of the Matrix law office in London, where Cherie Blair, the prime minister’s wife, also works. His book, initially published last year, is not primarily about the decision to go to war in Iraq. Rather, it examines a range of issues in which, he argues, the Bush administration, with Britain’s complicity, has undermined the “rules-based” international system built largely by the United States and Britain after World War II.
Sands said there was no doubt about the authenticity of the documents he quotes.
“They have not been denied, and they cannot be denied,” he told the Los Angeles Times this week. Britain’s Channel 4 News said it had seen the document outside Britain. The channel’s Jon Snow presented excerpts in a broadcast last weekend.
The text, in Sands’ view, shows that U.S. and British leaders had determined six weeks before the invasion to launch a war to disarm Hussein, even without explicit U.N. approval.
According to the secret notes of the meeting, as paraphrased in Sands’ book and then quoted directly by Channel 4, Bush told Blair that “the U.S. was thinking of flying U2 reconnaissance aircraft with fighter cover over Iraq, painted in U.N. colors. If Saddam fires on them, he would be in breach” of U.N. resolutions.
Bush also was quoted as saying an Iraqi defector might make a public presentation about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and that there was a small possibility the Iraqi leader would be assassinated.
The accounts say Bush promised to put the full weight of the United States behind getting another U.N. resolution, but if that failed, military action would follow anyway. He is also quoted as saying he believed that internecine warfare in Iraq was unlikely.
Blair is quoted as saying that a second Security Council resolution was desirable to “provide an insurance policy against the unexpected, and international cover -- including with the Arabs.” But he is also quoted as saying he was behind Bush.
“The documents ... indicate very clearly that neither man considered that the British or American governments had enough evidence,” Sands said. “Why would the U.S. president and the British prime minister spend any time concocting ways of provoking a material breach if they knew they could prove Saddam had weapons of mass destruction?”
Sands contends that U.S. and British actions have eroded pillars of international relations such as the U.N. Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Geneva Convention, and that has made international action in Iraq more difficult.
“By ripping up the rule book, they undermined their ability to forge a consensus,” he said.
Sands saw a “setting aside of the classical rules of international law, which basically say you can only use force in two circumstances: in self-defense or where the Security Council has authorized the use of force.... They never argued self-defense,” he said. “So they argued that the Security Council had agreed to the use of force. I don’t think there are many people who accept that argument.”
Ian Gleeson, a spokesman for the British government, said the country had waited until March 18 to commit its forces and earlier pursued “all other avenues” to compel Hussein to disarm.
“Obviously, all these matters have been thoroughly investigated during the various inquiries we’ve had here, so we’ve got nothing further to add, and I am certainly not commenting directly on the book,” Gleeson said.
When asked about the allegations in Washington last week, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said: “Look, this is ground that has been plowed over and over and over again. The president and others couldn’t have been more clear where we stood at that point in time with respect to seeking a diplomatic solution versus a military alternative.”
Sands disagreed with the assertion that Blair’s conduct had already been investigated, adding that the documents now coming out could form the basis of an impeachment motion against the British prime minister.
“He misled Parliament as to the state of his knowledge [about Hussein’s weapons], and he misled Parliament as to the extent to which he had or had not committed to the U.S. president the United Kingdom’s support, and that requires, at the very least, a full and thorough inquiry.”