Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 320-339)


19 APRIL 2006

  Q320 Chairman: Sir Christopher, thank you for coming this afternoon. I apologise first of all for keeping you waiting but we had a division which extended the period of the previous session and we also had to conclude all the questions we had. I also apologise in advance that I think we are about to have another vote which will potentially mean that we will have to break for 15 minutes and come back, but hopefully we can at least begin before that vote and then take it from there. We have a number of areas we would like to ask you about and I would like to begin by taking you to your assessment of your time in Washington, the relationship between the UK and the US and what influence we have as a country on the United States.

  Sir Christopher Meyer: Thank you, Chairman, for inviting me to this session this afternoon. It is a great pleasure to be here. I think that the United Kingdom can have and does have quite significant influence over the conduct of American foreign policy. If you look at the history, "special relationship" as a term came into being some time in the Second World War, and if you look at its "history" you will see many ups and downs from the British point of view. The ups tend to be at a time when we have been able to exercise really quite significant influence over the making of American foreign policy. If the issues are well chosen, if the case is made strongly, this can be done. The world's only superpower can be significantly influenced by countries and governments that are physically, if you like, significantly inferior to the US.

  Q321  Chairman: Peter Riddell's book is called Hug Them Close, and he talks about every Prime Minister except one, Edward Heath, having worked on a strategy of having as close a relationship with the US as possible and that every British Government since World War II had always operated on that basis with that one exception. Do you think the relationship is closer now than it has been in the past or would that be a fair assessment, that all governments except the one have had that close relationship?

  Sir Christopher Meyer: I think it has been a history since 1945, as I said, of quite considerable ups and downs. These have had almost nothing to do with whichever political party is in power in Washington or in London. They have had everything to do with personalities and the issues of the moment. For example, this may not be quite the answer to your question, but John Major had a very close relationship with George Bush senior and a rather distant relationship with Bill Clinton.

  Q322  Chairman: There were reasons for that, were there not?

  Sir Christopher Meyer: There always are reasons, Chairman.

  Q323  Chairman: It was the Intelligence Services checking files, if I remember correctly.

  Sir Christopher Meyer: Yes, but that actually was untrue. It was a bum rap, to be perfectly honest. I happened to be in Downing Street as Press Secretary at the time so I sort of knew what was going on, but it was believed on the other side of the Atlantic and that was all that mattered really. LBJ's memoirs and the tape recordings of his conversations, which have been published as books, I think at one point show his antipathy not only to Harold Wilson but also to Harold Wilson's pipe, which was ironic because I believe that Harold Wilson did not usually smoke a pipe and preferred a cigar, so there you go. It is much more uneven, I think, than the mythology (is that the right word?) of the relationship might have you believe.

  Q324  Mr Horam: One point you make in your book is that although we have a common language with the United States we should not imagine for one moment that it is a similar sort of country; in fact, it is remarkably different, and you make a lot of the exceptionalism of the United States and its sense of destiny and of its own values. How far has that been apparent in its conduct of foreign policy under the Bush administration?

  Sir Christopher Meyer: I think it has been very apparent and it is one of the ways in which you can measure the differences between the two sides of the Atlantic. For example, if you look historically at American foreign policy you can very crudely speaking divide it into periods when the so-called idealists—Woodrow Wilson, for example—gained the ascendancy and when the realists, the pragmatists, gained the ascendancy, which was most of the time. When I say "idealists" I talk about either a foreign policy infused with a very high degree of moralism or a foreign policy infused with a very high degree of religiosity. The latter has, I think, been very much apparent during the two administrations of George W Bush. That is incredibly different from the European tradition of foreign policy generally and the British tradition of foreign policy in particular. When people talk about the new Conservative influence on American foreign policy today or that of Christian evangelism/fundamentalism, it is another way of saying that under George W Bush, at least in his first administration—I would make a difference for the second administration—there has been a distilled form of the idealist tradition of American foreign policy which has been there since the foundation of the republic. It means that the centre of gravity in American foreign policy since the foundation of the republic has been far more towards idealism, messianism, religiosity, whatever phrase you like to choose to include in that.

  Q325  Mr Horam: Is intervention included in that?

  Sir Christopher Meyer: It can well be, yes. Monroe doctrine has got some relevance to this. It is very different. It is not axiomatic, to put it mildly, therefore, that in viewing the world as a whole the United Kingdom's views and interests will automatically coincide with those of the United States. Sometimes they will; sometimes they will not.

  Q326  Mr Heathcoat-Amory: President Bush came into office with great doubts about nation building, but then, because of 9/11 and other events, he attacked Iraq because of a perceived threat. Added to that he now seems to be developing a doctrine of building democracy on the ground that democratic states are not a threat to their neighbours. What is this new Bush doctrine? What are the rules? What guide is it to future decisions about whether to intervene or not and on what grounds and where and when?

  Sir Christopher Meyer: I think it is a very rough and ready benchmark by which the detail of American foreign policy can be assessed and judged. From the very first time that I met George W Bush, and I am talking personally now about the President, which was back in 1998 when he was Governor of Texas, it was quite clear that as he was starting to think about what he would do in the world if he were to run for President. The notion of being a beacon, a progenitor of democracy around the world was already becoming very attractive to him and that developed when he became President. Although great play is made of this in the most recent National Security Strategy published a few weeks ago, I do not think there is novelty in it, and in a sense, where Afghanistan and Iraq were concerned, the democratic impulse for the President personally was almost as strong as his reaction to the horror of 9/11. In fact, the one thing, if you like, pumped up the other. Today, which is, if you like, the third phase of Bush foreign policy, the first being up to 9/11, the second being from 9/11 to roughly the end of the first administration, the third being approximately the second administration, looks to me like a foreign policy which is wrapped in the rhetoric of spreading democracy around the world where possible with the execution of this policy in the hands of Condoleeza Rice who is much more of a throwback to the realist/pragmatic tradition of US foreign policy.

  Q327  Mr Heathcoat-Amory: Do you think that American power is now in decline and do you think there is a risk that President Bush's real legacy will be a reluctance on the part of a future American Government to do all this again? In other words, although we supported the Americans,—or I did; I supported the Americans to keep them engaged in the world—actually the failures in Iraq will have the opposite effect and there could be a retreat into American isolationism, as, of course, has happened several times in the past?

  Sir Christopher Meyer: As far as Iraq is concerned the game has yet to be fully played out and it looks extremely depressing, it looks pretty negative, and it may well be that the whole enterprise will end severely in tears. That is what a betting man would say now. It is not necessarily what will have happened five years from now, so the game is not yet over and it may well be that the next American President, towards the end of his or her Presidency, may be able to say, looking back, "We went through a horrible period but in the end the thing worked out reasonably well". I am not sure that I believe that is what will happen but it could happen. The lessons to be drawn from this episode by both the American people and the American political class are not yet fully formed. You say isolationism. I do not believe in any circumstances there will be a relapse, as you put it, into isolationism because the challenge in dealing with the United States is not the fear that it will become isolationist. It is the degree to which it will act unilaterally or not, unilaterally or with allies, be they formal or informal. The United States is too much involved in the world, in globalisation. In some ways it has created globalisation. Whether we are talking economically, technologically or culturally it is interwoven into the fabric of the world as a whole, so even if you get up in Congress and say, "Let us cut these links here and those links there", it cannot work. It cannot work in a world where China holds the largest amount of American debt. It simply cannot work in a world where American foreign direct investment last time I looked was more focused in Europe than in any other area of the world. It is not possible any longer to be isolationist. I do not know exactly what military conclusion they may draw from the episode in Iraq and in Afghanistan but more generally there is no question of the United States being able to shut the frontiers, bring down the shutters and become autarchic once again, as I suppose they were in the 19th century.

  Q328  Sir John Stanley: Sir Christopher, Philippe Sands, who has just been giving evidence to us, on page 272 of his book says that on 31 January 2003 President Bush and Prime Minister Blair had a two-hour meeting at the White House accompanied by six close aides and advisers. For the record could you tell us whether you were one of the aides and advisers present at that meeting?

  Sir Christopher Meyer: No, I was not. I was in an anteroom shooting the breeze with other members of the British and American delegations.

  Q329  Sir John Stanley: Thank you. He goes on to say that the note of the meeting in the form of a letter, and I quote, "confirms that the decision to go to war had already been taken by President Bush". Could you tell the committee, from where you were as our Ambassador in Washington, at what point you believe Mr Blair made a firm commitment to be with Mr Bush should Mr Bush decide to invade Iraq?

  Sir Christopher Meyer: If I can just give a bit of context as I saw it for the meeting on 31 January 2003, I had said to London first that I thought the atmosphere had changed markedly towards war after the Iraqi declaration of 7 December in which they responded to the UN's request to make a full declaration of their holdings of weapons of mass destruction, because that declaration was considered to be, rightly or wrongly, so mendacious that the Iraqis had run out of rope, if you like. The next very important stage was two days before that meeting of 31 January. On 29 January the President gave his State of the Union speech and after that I remember thinking and so telling London that I thought that if the President had given himself any wiggle room for not going to war he had closed that off in that speech. It was a very powerful, almost missionary statement about it being America's destiny to deal with Saddam and it looked pretty clear that this was going to be war. By the time that Tony Blair came to the meeting on 31 January I was saying that, absent a coup in Iraq or Saddam suddenly deciding to go off into exile in some hospitable place like Minsk, the die was cast for war and therefore the Prime Minister's main objective for that meeting should be to ensure that in the coming war we went into battle, if you like, in the best company possible, which is another way of saying, "Let us get a second resolution".

  Q330  Sir John Stanley: That does not answer my question. Could I put it to you again? At what point do you believe Mr Blair was firmly committed to going to war with President Bush?

  Sir Christopher Meyer: The way I would put it would be like this. I think Tony Blair had made a decision to support George Bush, however the cards fell, from the Crawford Summit of April 2002. This is a distinction I make in my book. This was not a decision in April 2002 at Crawford to go to war on such-and-such a date. It was not an operational decision, but Blair had decided that the right thing to do, given his own view of Saddam Hussein, was to be with the President of the United States whatever decision he chose to take. That was a decision by Blair, I think, taken to try to ensure that he had the maximum influence possible over the President. This is a very important distinction because the criticism has been levelled at both President Bush and Prime Minister Blair that from a very early stage in 2002 they had decided, come what may, that they were going to go to war against Saddam Hussein in the spring of 2003. I do not think that is true because the consequence of that is that everything that then followed in 2002, including the efforts of the United Nations, would have been simply a smokescreen for a devious plan, if you like. I do not believe that to be true. I do not believe the two leaders lied to their respective public opinions. I do believe though that they were very doubtful that Saddam would ever do the right thing and that probably it would come to war, but we did not get to the moment of truth until early 2003.

  Q331  Sir John Stanley: But you are saying to the committee that, from the Crawford Summit onwards, if President Bush had decided subsequently to go to war he had been assured by Mr Blair that the British would be with him?

  Sir Christopher Meyer: I cannot say to you, Sir John, that those were the words used because, as you will probably be aware, at Crawford the Prime Minister and the President were locked together, without any advisers being there, for quite a considerable period of time, and to the best of my recollection advisers were there only for a discussion of the Middle East because running in parallel to all this was an intifada that seemed to be running out of control, so I do not know exactly what transpired between President and Prime Minister, but the speech that the Prime Minister made the next day at College Station, which was one of the best speeches he made on Iraq, sounded to me like a statement of very strong support for the President, whatever he chose to do. Do not forget that, going back to 1998, Blair had been making speeches long before George W Bush came on the scene, recognising the threat that Saddam presented to the world at large and saying, "We have to deal with this man one way or another", so Blair was always a true believer in dealing with Saddam "one way or another" long before George W became President of the United States.

  Q332  Mr Keetch: Just to continue this if we can, Sir Christopher, you said that you did not believe that the events of late 2002 in the UN were a smokescreen, but, again going back to the memo that we have been told about on 31 January, it is also alleged in that memo that President Bush actually set the date for the war as being 10 March 2003. Therefore, if what had happened in 2002 was not a smokescreen, was the attempt to get a second resolution and to persuade President Chirac to agree to a second resolution a smokescreen, because if it was the case that the March date had been set for the conflict, going back to the UN in a sense was a pointless exercise?

  Sir Christopher Meyer: You cannot quite put it like that.

  Q333  Mr Keetch: How can you put it?

  Sir Christopher Meyer: The thing is, when you are looking back with the benefit of hindsight it does look like a straight linear progression which ends up with war beginning on 20 March. It was not like that; at least, it did not seem like that to me. Maybe I was too close to the action. There seemed to be a lot of zigging and zagging, so from the period, say, some time in October 2002 onwards until the time I left Washington I heard all kinds of dates for contingency planning. For a long time people were saying to us, "It is going to be"—I cannot remember the exact date—"January the something-or-other 2003. That is the contingency date against which we are doing our planning." That timing collapsed for a variety of reasons, including that they could not get the Turks to agree to let one of the American divisions transit Turkish territory. Then at the beginning of 2003 I remember one time hearing mid February, then late February, and I thought, "That is getting damn near my birthday", and then March, and 10 March appears as a date in that record of the meeting on 31 January, and then in the end it was 20 March. The issue is not the fact that dates specifically were being discussed that makes it seem that what followed was just a smokescreen. The question I think has to be a different one. If, against all odds, a majority of the members of the Security Council were prepared to go for a second resolution, or a majority were prepared to countenance war, say, in April or something like that, it might have changed the game. In the event all the diplomatic efforts to get members of the Security Council on board for a second resolution foundered, for well-known reasons, so that eventuality never happened. I do not think it is as clear-cut as you suggested in your question.

  Q334  Mr Keetch: Let me ask one other question. Again, Philippe Sands suggested to us earlier this afternoon that when the decision to go to war was taken during those early months of 2003 the Prime Minister and the President no longer believed that Saddam Hussein probably had a WMD programme and no longer believed that he was therefore a threat to us. Did you believe at that stage that he had a WMD programme and did you think that the Prime Minister believed that?

  Sir Christopher Meyer: Oh yes, I do believe that the Prime Minister thought he had a WMD programme. I believed that he had a WMD programme. I did so not on a hunch but on the basis of intelligence that I was seeing at the time. Of course, depending on whether we are talking about January or February 2003, Blix by that time had got cracking on his inspections and I think made two reports to the Security Council before war intervened. I do not think I am breaking some state secret in saying that in some of the locations where he looked for WMD he was directed there by intelligence fed to him either by the Americans or by us, and so this was being done not on the basis, "By God, the stuff is not there", but, "We think it is there and we think it is there", and then Blix did not find it. What we did not know at the time was whether this because Blix was using the intelligence slowly or poorly or not or whether it was because the Iraqis had been tipped off and were moving the stuff to another location. None of that was clear, so if that is what Philippe Sands said to you beforehand I do not think I would agree with that. I think there was a strong belief at the time that there were weapons of mass destruction somewhere and it was not until the Iraq Survey Group came back with its report in September 2004 that you had a pretty definitive statement that if there had been stuff around it was probably buried in the sand somewhere, or might be in Syria, or even, conceivably, in Iran.

  Q335  Chairman: Perhaps I can say for the record that in my understanding of what Philippe Sands said he was referring to nuclear weapons. I do not think he referred to WMD, and your question referred to WMD.

  Sir Christopher Meyer: There is a big difference.

  Chairman: I think we ought to get that clear. He did not deal with chemical weapons.

  Q336  Mr Heathcoat-Amory: He was talking about nuclear weapons.

  Sir Christopher Meyer: Can I make a very brief postscript? On nukes, if I remember well, we were not at all sure if there was any evidence around of something actual in the pipeline, as it were, as is happening in Iran, but it was biological and chemical weapons which were the focus of attention.

  Q337  Mr Pope: I want to be clear about this point because you obviously had privileged access to the Prime Minister in the spring of 2003, you had privileged access to intelligence data. Do you think the Prime Minister deliberately misled the House in his speech on 18 March?

  Sir Christopher Meyer: Absolutely not.

  Q338  Mr Pope: It is very helpful to have that on the record. I want to follow on from something that Sir John said, and this was about British influence in the run-up to the war. You suggested that Tony Blair effectively said to President Bush at Crawford, "We will be with you, come what may". "However the cards fall" was how you characterised it. Do you think we made the most of our influence and leverage from April 2002 onwards? Do you think that it was a result of British influence that America sought a second resolution?

  Sir Christopher Meyer: To answer your second question first, the Americans were being pressed not only by us but also by Aznar, the Spanish Prime Minister, the Australian Prime Minister, Howard, and I think even by Berlusconi. All of them said, "We need a second resolution", so there was stuff coming in from all sides and these were the essential allies for Bush when it was a question of going to war. The Americans were never keen on a second resolution, for well-known reasons, but I think they made a judgment that because their essential allies for the operation wanted one then they would make the effort and, although it was not clear at the press conference on 31 January 2003 that Bush was at all keen on pursuing it, actually the Americans did put their shoulder to the wheel afterwards, and the irony of it all was that, having finally put their shoulder to their wheel, they got absolutely nowhere with anybody, even in their own back yard in South America with the Chileans and the Mexicans. I cannot remember what your first question was.

  Q339  Mr Pope: Do you think war would have been sooner if it had not been for Blair and the other allies, such as Aznar and Howard?

  Sir Christopher Meyer: I do not think it would have been sooner. When the notion of January was floating around in Washington, which was for most of the autumn of 2002, I remember talking to somebody, whom I really do not want to name, who was fairly senior in the White House, and I think I had this conversation in October 2002, about this January timing, and the answer I got was, "It is going to slip", and the reason given then was Turkey. I think it is no secret that when the Prime Minister came to Washington in January 2003 one of the things that he was keen to have was a delay in the start to the war. At the time there was a February date floating around in the air. In the end the February date slipped, not because of Blair's advocacy or anybody else's, but because the American forces simply were not ready, and I think 20 March became the date because we had not got anywhere with the second resolution and the guys were ready to go.

The Committee suspended from 4.25 pm to 4.39 pm for a division in the House

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