Thus, the idea of UN inspectors was introduced not as a means to avoid war, as President Bush repeatedly assured Americans, but as a means to make war possible. War had been decided on; the problem under discussion here was how to make, in the prime minister’s words, “the political context …right.” The “political strategy”—at the center of which, as with the Americans, was weapons of mass destruction, for “it was the regime that was producing the WMD”—must be strong enough to give “the military plan the space to work.” Which is to say, once the allies were victorious the war would justify itself. The demand that Iraq accept UN inspectors, especially if refused, could form the political bridge by which the allies could reach their goal: “regime change” through “military action.”
But there was a problem: as the foreign secretary pointed out, “on the political strategy, there could be US/UK differences.” While the British considered legal justification for going to war critical—they, unlike the Americans, were members of the International Criminal Court—the Americans did not. Mr. Straw suggested that given “US resistance, we should explore discreetly the ultimatum.” The defense secretary, Geoffrey Hoon, was more blunt, arguing
that if the Prime Minister wanted UK military involvement, he would need to decide this early. He cautioned that many in the US did not think it worth going down the ultimatum route. It would be important for the Prime Minister to set out the political context to Bush.
The key negotiation in view at this point, in other words, was not with Saddam over letting in the United Nations inspectors—both parties hoped he would refuse to admit them, and thus provide the justification for invading. The key negotiation would be between the Americans, who had shown “resistance” to the idea of involving the United Nations at all, and the British, who were more concerned than their American cousins about having some kind of legal fig leaf for attacking Iraq. Three weeks later, Foreign Secretary Straw arrived in the Hamptons to “discreetly explore the ultimatum” with Secretary of State Powell, perhaps the only senior American official who shared some of the British concerns; as Straw told the secretary, in Bob Woodward’s account, “If you are really thinking about war and you want us Brits to be a player, we cannot be unless you go to the United Nations.”2
Britain’s strong support for the “UN route” that most American officials so distrusted was critical in helping Powell in the bureaucratic battle over going to the United Nations. As late as August 26, Vice President Dick Cheney had appeared before a convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and publicly denounced “the UN route.” Asserting that “simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction [and] there is no doubt that he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies, and against us,” Cheney advanced the view that going to the United Nations would itself be dangerous:
A return of inspectors would provide no assurance whatsoever of his compliance with UN resolutions. On the contrary, there is great danger that it would provide false comfort that Saddam was somehow “back in the box.”
Cheney, like other administration “hard-liners,” feared “the UN route” not because it might fail but because it might succeed and thereby prevent a war that they were convinced had to be fought.
As Woodward recounts, it would finally take a personal visit by Blair on September 7 to persuade President Bush to go to the United Nations:
For Blair the immediate question was, Would the United Nations be used? He was keenly aware that in Britain the question was, Does Blair believe in the UN? It was critical domestically for the prime minister to show his own Labour Party, a pacifist party at heart, opposed to war in principle, that he had gone the UN route. Public opinion in the UK favored trying to make international institutions work before resorting to force. Going through the UN would be a large and much-needed plus.3
The President now told Blair that he had decided “to go to the UN” and the prime minister, according to Woodward, “was relieved.” After the session with Blair, Bush later recounts to Woodward, he walked into a conference room and told the British officials gathered there that “your man has got cojones.” (“And of course these Brits don’t know what cojones are,” Bush tells Woodward.) Henceforth this particular conference with Blair would be known, Bush declares, as “the cojones meeting.”
That September the attempt to sell the war began in earnest, for, as White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card had told The New York Times in an unusually candid moment, “You don’t roll out a new product in August.” At the heart of the sales campaign was the United Nations. Thanks in substantial part to Blair’s prodding, George W. Bush would come before the UN General Assembly on September 12 and, after denouncing the Iraqi regime, announce that “we will work with the UN Security Council for the necessary resolutions.” The main phase of public diplomacy—giving the war a “political context,” in Blair’s phrase—had begun. Though “the UN route” would be styled as an attempt to avoid war, its essence, as the Downing Street memo makes clear, was a strategy to make the war possible, partly by making it politically palatable.
As it turned out, however—and as Cheney and others had feared—the “UN route” to war was by no means smooth, or direct.
Though Powell managed the considerable feat of securing unanimous approval for Security Council Resolution 1441, winning even Syria’s sup-port, the allies differed on the key question of whether or not the resolution gave United Nations approval for the use of force against Saddam, as the Americans contended, or whether a second resolution would be required, as the majority of the council, and even the British, conceded it would. Sir Jeremy Greenstock, the British ambassador to the UN, put this position bluntly on November 8, the day Resolution 1441 was passed:
We heard loud and clear during the negotiations about “automaticity” and “hidden triggers”—the concerns that on a decision so crucial we should not rush into military action…. Let me be equally clear…. There is no “automaticity” in this Resolution. If there is a further Iraqi breach of its disarmament obligations, the matter will return to the Council for discussion as required…. We would expect the Security Council then to meet its responsibilities.
Vice President Cheney could have expected no worse. Having decided to travel down “the UN route,” the Americans and British would now need a second resolution to gain the necessary approval to attack Iraq. Worse, Saddam frustrated British and American hopes, as articulated by Blair in the July 23 meeting, that he would simply refuse to admit the inspectors and thereby offer the allies an immediate casus belli. Instead, hundreds of inspectors entered Iraq, began to search, and found…nothing. January, which Defence Secretary Hoon had suggested was the “most likely timing in US minds for military action to begin,” came and went, and the inspectors went on searching.
On the Security Council, a majority—led by France, Germany, and Russia—would push for the inspections to run their course. President Jacques Chirac of France later put this argument succinctly in an interview with CBS and CNN just as the war was about to begin:
France is not pacifist. We are not anti-American either. We are not just going to use our veto to nag and annoy the US. But we just feel that there is another option, another way, another more normal way, a less dramatic way than war, and that we have to go through that path. And we should pursue it until we’ve come [to] a dead end, but that isn’t the case.4
Where would this “dead end” be found, however, and who would determine that it had been found? Would it be the French, or the Americans? The logical flaw that threatened the administration’s policy now began to become clear. Had the inspectors found weapons, or had they been presented with them by Saddam Hussein, many who had supported the resolution would argue that the inspections regime it established had indeed begun to work—that by multilateral action the world was succeeding, peacefully, in “disarming Iraq.” As long as the inspectors found no weapons, however, many would argue that the inspectors “must be given time to do their work”—until, in Chirac’s words, they “came to a dead end.” However that point might be determined, it is likely that, long before it was reached, the failure to find weapons would have undermined the administration’s central argument for going to war—”the conjunction,” as ‘C’ had put it that morning in July, “of terrorism and WMD.” And as we now know, the inspectors would never have found weapons of mass destruction.
Vice President Cheney had anticipated this problem, as he had explained frankly to Hans Blix, the chief UN weapons inspector, during an October 30 meeting in the White House. Cheney, according to Blix,
stated the position that inspections, if they do not give results, cannot go on forever, and said the US was “ready to discredit inspections in favor of disarmament.” A pretty straight way, I thought, of saying that if we did not soon find the weapons of mass destruction that the US was convinced Iraq possessed (though they did not know where), the US would be ready to say that the inspectors were useless and embark on disarmament by other means.5
Indeed, the inspectors’ failure to find any evidence of weapons came in the wake of a very large effort launched by the administration to put before the world evidence of Saddam’s arsenal, an effort spearheaded by George W. Bush’s speech in Cincinnati on October 7, and followed by a series of increasingly lurid disclosures to the press that reached a crescendo with Colin Powell’s multimedia presentation to the UN Security Council on February 5, 2003. Throughout the fall and winter, the administration had “rolled out the product,” in Card’s phrase, with great skill, making use of television, radio, and all the print press to get its message out about the imminent threat of Saddam’s arsenal. (“Think of the press,” advised Josef Goebbels, “as a great keyboard on which the government can play.”)
As the gap between administration rhetoric about enormous arsenals—”we know where they are,” asserted Donald Rumsfeld—and the inspectors’ empty hands grew wider, that gap, as Cheney had predicted, had the effect in many quarters of undermining the credibility of the United Nations process itself. The inspectors’ failure to find weapons in Iraq was taken to discredit the worth of the inspections, rather than to cast doubt on the administration’s contention that Saddam possessed large stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction.