Britain Debates War with Iraq

The Blair Dossier

Antiwar protests took place outside the Houses of Parliament in London on Sept. 24 when Prime Minister Tony Blair released his dossier of information on Iraq. (Photo: AFP)
It was intended as a document of irrefutable evidence that would silence, for once and for all, Britain's growing voices of protest against a possible U.S.-U.K. war against Iraq.

Instead, the 50-page dossier of intelligence on Iraq’s weapons program released to the public by British Prime Minister Tony Blair on Sept. 24 met with a largely negative response from the British press.

While there was limited support for the prime minister's position that "the threat [presented by Saddam Hussein] is serious and current," most commentators felt that the dossier failed to put forward a compelling case for military action in Iraq. Unusually in Britain's adversarial journalistic culture, feelings about the dossier were even strong enough to unite editorial writers from different ends of the political spectrum.

"There is little in the dossier to suggest that Iraq poses a new and imminent military threat," wrote diplomatic editor Anton La Guardia in London's conservative Daily Telegraph (Sept. 25). "It does not argue that Saddam is preparing to attack either his neighbors or the West, or that he is about to obtain a nuclear bomb."

The liberal Daily Mirror agreed that the evidence presented in the dossier was less than overwhelming. "It was 50 pages of old facts and new guesses, held together by the prime minister's belief that Saddam Hussein is a real threat to world peace," read a Sept. 25 editorial.

In his forward to the dossier, Tony Blair wrote that it was "unprecedented" for his government to release such sensitive material, but said that "in light of the debate about Iraq and Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), I wanted to share with the British public the reasons why I believe this issue to be a current and serious threat to the U.K. national interest." The dossier went on to outline the Iraqi regime's past use of chemical and biological weapons, its capacity to use such weapons in the future, and its attempts to acquire nuclear materials.

It was on the nuclear issue that many commentators found the government's evidence particularly weak. "[Saddam] has no factory to treat enriched uranium even if he found it 'somewhere in Africa,'" wrote Simon Jenkins in London's conservative Times (Sept. 25). "Had he such a factory, it could be bombed."

Jenkins' skepticism extended to cover the Iraqi leader's future use of biological and chemical weapons, which he said were "hard to deliver, least of all with his aging SCUDs. They were not used even in the Gulf War. Saddam has had these weapons for 20 years. So have many highly unstable Central Asian states. Nor does the dossier explain why these weapons could not be eliminated 'surgically,' as their predecessors were by the Israelis in 1981 and allegedly by American missiles ever since."

Similarly unconvinced, Robert Fisk of London's liberal The Independent launched a scathing attack on the way the dossier's arguments were couched in vague and unemphatic language. "The Iraqi weapon program 'is almost certainly' seeking to enrich uranium. 'If' Iraq obtained fissile material, Iraq could produce nuclear weapons in one or two years. It is 'difficult to judge' whether Al-Hussein missiles could be available for use. Efforts to regenerate the Iraqi missile program 'probably' began in 1995," he wrote (Sept. 25). "Let's all say it out loud, 20 times: Saddam is a brutal, wicked tyrant. But are 'almost certainly,' 'appears,' 'probably,' and 'if' really the rallying call to send our grenadiers off to the deserts of Kut-al-Amara?"

A lone voice of support issued from the Times (Sept. 25), where Bronwen Maddox asked, "Has Tony Blair made the case for war?" and answered, "Yes. Certainly, his dossier does a much better job than anyone has managed so far, and is the best that could be expected." But the majority of editorialists and opinion-writers seemed to agree with the sentiment, stated in a Sept. 25 editorial in The Independent, that "awful as Saddam is, a war to remove him could easily make matters far worse."

As the voices of dissent grew, it seemed that Prime Minister Blair had more on his plate than the objections of editorialists. Following the publication of the dossier, he faced substantial opposition from within his own party. On Sept. 25, after a nine-hour parliamentary debate on Iraq, 53 Labor Members of Parliament, joined by MPs from the Liberal Democrat, Scottish National, and Plaid Cymru parties, staged a backbench revolt against the government's position, voting on a technical amendment to lodge their objections to an attack on Iraq.

But the revolt was short-lived. On Sept. 29, after a weekend in which the United States and the U.K. intensively lobbied their co-chairs on the U.N. Security Council to adopt a tough new resolution on Iraq, the Labor Party's National Executive Council voted overwhelmingly at the party's annual conference to reject a resolution that would have tied the use of military action to prior U.N. support, thereby clearing the way for the U.K. to join the United States in a preemptive strike against Iraq.

The vote effectively neutralized the voices of dissent in the Blair administration, notably that of International Development Secretary Clare Short, who has been the leading cabinet dove. A defanged Short was left to tell the party conference that "we can all hear the drumbeat of war and no one should welcome it... but there are other massive dangers facing the world."

That left opposition in the hands of Britain's antiwar movement, which on Sept. 28 held a large protest march and rally in London. According to its organizers, the march drew an estimated 400,000 people and was the biggest antiwar demonstration Western Europe has seen since the 1980s. On Sept. 27, march organizer Mike Marqusee told the BBC that "We have been inundated with messages of support since Tuesday [Sept. 24]—it is clear Tony Blair's dossier has increased the numbers coming on this demonstration."

The march, however, drew its own controversy when organizers added a demand for freedom in Palestine to their opposition to a war with Iraq. Some commentators saw the linkage of the two issues as hypocritical. "Lamentably, the organizers of Saturday's march refused to support regime change," wrote Peter Tatchell in The Guardian (Sept. 30). "They demanded freedom for Palestine but not freedom for the Iraqi people. This omission is an appalling betrayal of Iraqis struggling for democracy and social justice."

Nevertheless, as popular opposition to a war with Iraq intensifies in Britain, Blair's unqualified support for President Bush is leading some in the country to make a suggestion that was formerly unthinkable: that Britain should cool the "special relationship" it has with the United States. 

"A huge question mark continues to hang over [Blair's] closeness to President Bush," wrote the Daily Mirror (Sept. 25). "As long as Mr. Bush continues to insist on military action, Mr. Blair will be accused of simply going along with the White House's lust for war."

In a Sept. 27 article for London's liberal The Guardian, Seumas Milne put the matter more bluntly: "Blair, as Bush's senior international salesman, is providing political cover for a policy which is opposed throughout the world," he wrote. "For Tony Blair, it is about his 'article of faith' in the centrality of the American relationship and the need to pay a 'blood price' to maintain it. For the British people, across the political spectrum, it should highlight the moral and democratic necessity of starting to loosen what has become a profoundly dangerous alliance."