Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 340-359)


19 APRIL 2006

  Q340 Richard Younger-Ross: During your discussions in the time you were in Washington can you give us any light on what discussions you were aware of or what preparation was being made or what joint meetings were being set up on what to do in Iraq post-conflict?

  Sir Christopher Meyer: Yes. My recollection of that is that not a lot was going on to discuss Iraq post-conflict. It was clear from Crawford, roughly around that time onwards, that the Americans were not devoting a great deal of attention to what would follow. Towards the end of 2002 I remember two Foreign Office (or they may have been interdepartmental) delegations from Whitehall coming over to talk about what was going to happen if and when there was war and Saddam was removed. The difficulty they had, and I cannot give you exact dates because I cannot remember; it was something like November/December, or it might even have been October, was that there was not a united position on the American side in the bureaucracy on post-war, and so they found themselves talking separately to the State Department and then to the Ministry of Defence. By the time I retired from Washington and from the Service it did not seem to me that that kind of discussion had got very far.

  Q341  Richard Younger-Ross: Are you aware that there was a meeting which the Americans organised in a hotel in Cobham of Iraqi dissidents?

  Sir Christopher Meyer: What I was aware of, and this is a slightly different thing, is this. Post-Iraq: what actually are we talking about here? If we are talking about an agreed plan on what to do on Saddam-toppled-day plus one, plus two, plus three, that did not seem to have been worked out between the British and the Americans. On the question of the Iraqi opposition, during most of 2002 I was aware of a conflict within the US administration over whether Challabi and the INC were worth supporting or not. There was talk all the way through the early summer of 2002 of getting together a conference of Iraqi dissident groups, which would include the INC but not only the INC, and this seemed to have broken down on rivalries between the INC and the other groups whose names I cannot remember, and on at that time a very intense, almost internecine warfare between the Department of Defence and the State Department. I do not remember a meeting in Cobham but it sounds to me like some kind of offshoot of those rather abortive discussions that were going on inside the administration.

  Q342  Richard Younger-Ross: It was broadcast as a secret location and a secret meeting but from the exterior shot of the hotel it was quite clear where it was to anyone who has ever driven down the A3. If I can go on from that, Challabi was seen as promoted by a number of those within the US. Did we have a view on his worth? Were we keyed into the information he was giving, both in terms of what should happen post-conflict, but also the information it is alleged he gave regarding weapons of mass destruction?

  Sir Christopher Meyer: I was told by the Foreign Office that they did not hold the INC in high regard. They held Challabi and the INC in low regard, much like the State Department did and, as far as I remember, much as the CIA did. I have to say that this is why, and I think I have made this clear elsewhere, I did not fully take on board the influence of Challabi on the US administration other than the State Department until I had left Washington. I was aware he was around. I knew the INC were very active, but what I had not fully appreciated was for how long and how assiduously Challabi had cultivated the Republican Party in Washington. I believe that he modelled his campaign on that of the African National Congress which had a good deal of success in another decade in working on the US administration to come round and support them. It was only later when I was talking to people in Washington after I had left the Service that I came to understand how successful he had been at getting over to the Republican administration the notion that post-Saddam was not going to be all that difficult: you just turned up, you got rid of him, Iraq was ripe for revolution and upset, the British and American forces would be welcomed as heroes in the streets of Baghdad and Basra, and off you would go. He and his party were very largely responsible for convincing the Americans that that was what would happen after Saddam fell, and, of course, it was not like that at all.

  Q343  Richard Younger-Ross: So indirectly you are saying that Challabi was responsible for the US and British failure to deal with the post-conflict period?

  Sir Christopher Meyer: Forgive me for saying so but I think it is a little bit simplistic to say that because there were plenty of other voices in Washington and London who were arguing the contrary. The powers that be, or the powers that were, in both Washington and London took the view that they took. There was a very strong feeling that it was not going to be particularly difficult after Saddam fell. Philippe Sands may have mentioned this when he came in the earlier session but the minute of the meeting between George Bush and Tony Blair on 31 January 2003, which fell off the back of somebody's lorry into his hands and into his book, records the Prime Minister and the President agreeing that the likelihood of civil war after the fall of Saddam was remote, and certainly on the American side that was in large part down to the advice that they were getting from the INC.

  Q344  Chairman: I want to take up one little point coming out of that. You said that you were not aware of much work being done post-conflict. I was at a conference in Stockholm in late 2002 where a leading American said that there were 22 studies going on within the State Department about post-conflict Iraq. Is it true that that was the case? Were you aware of those studies, or is it that the Pentagon basically took over and therefore all the studies that the State Department were running were irrelevant?

  Sir Christopher Meyer: We were well aware of this work that was going on. I do not want to be misunderstood here. We knew the State Department was working on this stuff and working on it hard. I think their opposite numbers in the Foreign Office were doing the same thing. All the Middle East hands who knew Iraq well were doing the same thing for Jack Straw, and indeed some of that emerges from some of the other papers that have been leaked about Foreign Office attitudes in the spring of 2002 before Crawford, so we were aware that all this work was going on but what was not happening, at least in my time, was the ability of a British team to come to Washington and find a consolidated US team on the other side who were agreed on what was to be done afterwards.

  Q345  Chairman: Is that not a usual US problem? At the moment there seem to be very different views within the administration about this.

  Sir Christopher Meyer: It is both the great glory and the great defect of the American system that you have these ferocious internecine battles between different departments in Washington and you either regard it as constructive tension which actually produces a rather good policy or you do not. I think in this case it was the latter because in the end the whole bang shoot was given by the President to Don Rumsfeld and Tommy Franks to sort out, as Bob Woodward in his book has recorded so vividly.

  Q346  Mr Purchase: President Bush set out his doctrine of military pre-emption, saying that the USA would not hesitate to act alone if necessary in the interests of national security. Taking you back to your part and that of your fellow advisers from Number 10 and the Foreign Office, can you recall what the thrust of advice was that you gave to Prime Minister Blair in regard to ultimately the attack on Saddam Hussein in Iraq? Can you remember what the general thrust was? We know of one departure from the Foreign Office staff of a high-ranking official who said, "In the absence of a second resolution I cannot continue to serve". Was there anyone seriously demurring from the idea of attacking in your lot, if you like?

  Sir Christopher Meyer: In my lot? I tell you what I thought personally. I was not aware of any dissidence, certainly in the embassy in Washington, although there was—

  Q347  Mr Purchase: Do you by mean people who were against?

  Sir Christopher Meyer: I mean by people who were against the notion of going to war—

  Q348  Mr Purchase: They were all in favour?

  Sir Christopher Meyer: As far as I was aware everybody in my team in Washington was working, as they were expected to do, to keep London properly informed on what was moving in the American administration and where necessary to try to persuade the Americans to do the things that we wanted them to do or not to do things that we did not want them to do, the traditional diplomatic function, and nobody came to my office and said, "Christopher, I do not think I can do this because I do not agree". That never happened. I personally was in favour of getting rid of Saddam but, if you like, for non-neo-Con reasons because I thought that we should have called him to account early in 1999 after the first generation of inspectors, UNSCOM, were forced to leave because he would not let them do their job properly. I was always for that, not for reasons of messianic democracy or weapons of mass destruction or even 9/11; you did not need any of that stuff to justify making a case against Saddam. That was where I came from and I knew the lawyers were fighting like ferrets in a sack over this: what would actually justify an attack on Saddam, and as I am no lawyer I found myself persuaded by the argument that Saddam, having been in violation of God knows how many Security Council resolutions and the basic ceasefire of 1991, thoroughly deserved to be removed if he did not come into compliance with all this stuff. That was where I came from. I think most people in the embassy did as well.

  Q349  Mr Purchase: So we can establish just for the record that the general thrust of opinion was to support an attack?

  Sir Christopher Meyer: Yes.

  Q350  Mr Purchase: May I move on very quickly to a second point and that is that you mentioned earlier globalisation in response to my colleague who asked about whether America would retreat into isolationism. I agree with you entirely that globalisation, American interests, now make that almost a non-starter, but it also seems to be the basis on which there has been a growth in terrorism. The spread of American culture, the spread of American business seem to have coincided—and it may be coincidental—absolutely with the rise and rise of terrorism. Is there anything the Americans can do that would persuade the world in general that globalisation, the appetite of capitalism to spread, is a good thing rather than a bad thing, and thereby reduce the level of terrorism that we experience presently?

  Sir Christopher Meyer: That is a huge question.

  Q351  Mr Purchase: I am a fairly large chap!

  Sir Christopher Meyer: I find it quite hard to know where to start on that.

  Q352  Mr Purchase: Are the two things connected?

  Sir Christopher Meyer: Yes, they are connected, but I do think we need to be extremely careful about talking about wars on terrorism or global terrorism as if you have thesis/antithesis: you have globalisation driven to a large extent by American capitalism here and growing global terrorism on that side spurred on by what is going on here, a Coca-Cola there, terrorism here sort of thing. I do not think it is like that at all. I think the genesis of the Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda business is actually quite narrowly based in its origins on the presence of American troops on Saudi soil. That is what got him going. Having been in Sudan, he moves off to Afghanistan because they have given him, if you like, safe haven to do what he is doing. I do not like the "war on terrorism". I think you have to be a little bit careful about this. If you look at al Qaeda it is a bit like—and I hope he will not sue me for saying this—Richard Branson's Virgin. Virgin is a kind of worldwide franchise. You have the headquarters and then you have Virgin Airlines, Virgin Railways, Virgin Cola, Virgin telephones. You have got Osama bin Laden but it is a decentralised system. You have Osama bin Laden now sitting somewhere or other—I do not know—in Tora Bora, maybe, and he has this thing called al Qaeda. I think it is a highly decentralised system of terrorism. You do not have this guy sitting in a cave running the business like a global monolith.

  Q353  Mr Purchase: He does have access to internet there.

  Sir Christopher Meyer: Internet helps, obviously, but the internet, of course, can be intercepted, as mobile phones can be. I am not an expert on terrorism but I am very persuaded by those who say, "Hang on a minute. You have got the al Qaeda brand. It is used by all kinds of people round the world, such as in the UK and Madrid terrorist outrages, but that is a different thing from saying it is centrally controlled and planned". I think this has all kinds of implications not only for the way in which you tackle terrorism but also the way in which you link it to your foreign policy priorities.

  Q354  Andrew Mackinlay: We all accept that intelligence is flawed and it is not an exact science and so on, but are you, looking back now, shocked, horrified, surprised or whatever, at how totally wrong the critical intelligence was on Iraq and/or, if you were still in service and were asked to make recommendations, would there be anything you would be saying has really got to be done to avoid a repetition of what was a cataclysmic failure of intelligence, I would have thought? You may not agree. You have been in Number 10. You have been a mainstream diplomat. How do you look at this now in retrospect?

  Sir Christopher Meyer: I am not entirely sure, and this goes back to an earlier answer I gave you, that the intelligence was entirely wrong. If you take Colin Powell's presentation at the UN Security Council on 5 February 2003, a lot of what he put out there has now been demonstrated to have been wrong, and Heaven knows he worked extremely hard on the raw material he was given to be disciplined about it. If we boil this down to, were there supplies of biological and chemical weapons, were there the laboratories there to manufacture the stuff, did Saddam intend to resume further manufacture once loosening the sanctions regime made this possible, and my God, it was loosening very fast, I think the answer is yes because the Iraq Survey Group, although it came back at the end of 2004 and said, "We cannot find a piece of WMD anywhere", and that got the headlines, it did also say, "But, my God, all the mechanisms and protocols are there to resume production as soon as the sanctions are either lifted or have become porous enough to let the Iraqis import the stuff", so I am not convinced that somewhere in a garage in Damascus or under a hill in Iran there is not some of the stuff that the intelligence picked up as being in Iraq. I think the verdict is not yet final, and I have said before that from my own point of view you did not actually need the physical presence of WMD to justify getting rid of Saddam.

  Q355  Andrew Mackinlay: Why did you mention Iran? Probably I have been asleep on this but I am surprised that you think it is even conceivable that there was this linkage with Iran when the history is one of anathema.

  Sir Christopher Meyer: I know. You are absolutely right about that, but there is one curious episode from the 1991 war which I have never had explained to me satisfactorily, which was when the entire Iraqi Air Force decamped to Iran so it would not be destroyed by the Americans. It is, I think, still there, is it not?

  Q356  Chairman: It is still there.

  Sir Christopher Meyer: So why on earth, unless, I suppose, all the pilots were—Shia were better pilots than Sunni. I do not know. I do not know what the reason is but I think the politics of the region are so entangled and in some ways mysterious that—like you, I thought, "What the hell is going on here?", but it is a fact of history that the Iraqi Air Force was flown to Iran for safekeeping and they have been fighting the devils for 10 years. That is why I think there is more to this than meets the eye.

  Q357  Andrew Mackinlay: Can we invite your observations on where we are on Iran?

  Sir Christopher Meyer: We are in an unbelievably tight spot on Iran. It is really an intractable problem. I would be prepared to bet a lot of money that, even if the Iranians hold to their present position of insisting on being able to enrich uranium, denying access to the IAEA inspectors and all this, taking a really hard line, there will never be voted in the Security Council serious sanctions against them. I just do not think that Russia and China would be prepared to countenance this. I also think that efforts by the Europeans to broker some kind of deal, the four-power thing, is destined to go nowhere at all. Basically, the Iranians do not care about the Europeans.

  Q358  Andrew Mackinlay: Bush does what then?

  Sir Christopher Meyer: Ah! The one peaceful thing, if you like, the one non-military thing that has not been tried yet in dealing with Iran is intensive diplomatic negotiations between the United States and Iran. That is one piece that has not been put into the jigsaw. The Americans find themselves between a rock and hard place because on the one hand you have got Halizad, the Farsi-speaking, Afghan-born American Ambassador in Baghdad quietly talking to the Iranians to get them to soft-pedal on support for Shia insurgency, at least among those Shia who are pro-Iranian, and then you have got the stuff going on over nuclear enrichment, and then you have got a State Department programme, I think $75 million worth of cash, which is supposed to be paid into beaming TV and what-not into Iran to try and drive a wedge between the Iranian people and their leaders. If you are going to bomb the bejesus out of Iran you are not going to drive a wedge between the Iranian people and their leaders when you bring them together again, so there is incoherence everywhere and I think a completely different tack needs to be taken with Iran than is being taken now.

  Q359  Mr Maples: We have had, during the period when all this has been going on and you have been covering in your evidence, quite a long shopping list with the United States which we seem to be very unsuccessful at getting met. The ITAR waiver, which must have been on the agenda every time I have been to Washington for the last 10 years, now that JSAF have a second engine on it, the steel tariffs, the extradition treaty, and some more things I have written down here, the Transatlantic Air Services Agreement; there is a whole load of things here. I am not a supporter of this Government but nobody could have gone more out of their way to their own domestic political cost to support the United States than Blair has over the last few years. Why is it so difficult for us to get any of this? Are they taking us for granted? Is there a genuine block between the White House and Capitol Hill? What do you read as the difficulty? Presumably you addressed a lot of these issues when you were there. Why is it so difficult to get any quid for our quo?

  Sir Christopher Meyer: It is always difficult to get a quid for our quo with the United States, however good the political relationship is, because quite often the forces aligned against are, in American political terms, extremely powerful, and you really have to go in there hammer and tongs to try and win your points. I am not making a political point here but the model, I think, for having a close and healthy relationship with the United States is the one which Margaret Thatcher developed with Ronald Reagan. They loved each other. They were so close it was unbelievable. Do not misinterpret me.

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