It has looked like this before. British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s decision to support Bush in the war on Iraq has been more hotly controversial in Britain than Bush’s decision has been in the United States. Blair has been accused countless times of being Bush’s lapdog–something even the Canadians have refused to stoop to. The claim that Saddam Hussein could deploy weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes was probably “sexed up,” and at least two official inquiries have whitewashed the matter.
I’ve been watching this because I’ve felt that if Britain withdrew, or Blair was forced to resign, this would strip away the last veneer of “international support” for Bush’s invasion. At this point, though, probably most people who can be intelligently influenced on the matter are already well aware that all the weapons of mass destruction claims have proven utterly unsupportable. After two years, we still have found absolutely no evidence that Saddam Hussein possessed the proscribed weapons.
Which means that our rationale for invading Iraq without UN support is further undermined — there was no imminent threat to the United States (not that there was, anyway). Therefore the invasion was illegal.
Apparently British Attorney General Lord Goldsmith may have thought so too, at the time. This emerges in “the resignation letter of Elizabeth Wilmshurst, a legal adviser at the Foreign Office, in which she said the war would be a ‘crime of aggression’.”
- The critical paragraph of her letter, published yesterday under the Freedom of Information Act, was blanked out by the Government on the grounds that it was in the public interest to protect the privacy of the advice given by the Attorney General. But last night the contents of the paragraph were leaked, and Tony Blair was facing fresh allegations of a cover-up. There has long been speculation that Lord Goldsmith was leant on to switch his view, and to sanction the war – and confirmation of that would be devastating for the Prime Minister. The Wilmhurst letter stops short of explaining what caused Lord Goldsmith to change his mind.
At the very least, it seems Blair justified his decision on rather limited legal advice:
- In a further twist, only two weeks ago it emerged that, aside from his one-page reply to Parliament, there was no other formal advice from the Attorney General on the legality of war.
That admission, from the head of the home civil service Sir Andrew Turnbull, caused bafflement and bemusement. It prompted MPs to remark that Britain had invaded Iraq on the strength of a single piece of paper. Today’s revelation demonstrates how divided the Government’s own lawyers were on the issue.
More significant advice seems not to have been used:
- On 17 March, the Attorney General stated unequivocally that the use of force would be justified under international law. He set out his reasons in a one-page long parliamentary answer to MPs and peers
But only 10 days before, Lord Goldsmith produced a fuller document for Tony Blair in which he stopped short of giving a definitive view on whether war would be legal, and said it might be safer to secure a second UN resolution.
What now? “Foreign Secretary Jack Straw turned down the demand [to publish ‘the entire paper trail’ of Attorney General Lord Goldsmith’s advice to ministers that the war against Iraq was legal] from shadow attorney general Dominic Grieve, saying publishing such advice would have “very grave” implications for good government.”
Good government? Like government that participates in illegal invasions?