Britain’s former PM struck Iraq in 1998 to please Bill Clinton, according to files published by an investigative website.
Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair ordered the 1998 bombing of Iraq despite repeated warnings that such a move was unlawful, according to documents published by Declassified UK on Monday. Blair would follow the same template – insisting that illegal military action was legal – when the UK invaded Iraq in 2003.
The US and UK launched a four-day bombing campaign against Iraq in December 1998, after then-US President Bill Clinton accused Saddam Hussein of breaching commitments to the UN and developing weapons of mass destruction. As many as 1,400 Iraqi soldiers were killed in strikes on around 100 military facilities.
In the runup to the bombings, Blair was repeatedly told by his advisers that using force against Iraq would be illegal without a resolution from the UN Security Council, according to documents from the National Archives cited by Declassified UK, an investigative outlet that focuses on Britain’s military and intelligence agencies.
Attorney General John Morris reportedly told Blair in November 1997 that obtaining a statement from the Security Council would be “an essential precondition” to military action, while Blair’s private secretary, John Holmes, told the prime minister that British law officers and Foreign Secretary Robin Cook had a “serious problem about using force unless the Security Council declares that Iraq is in ‘material breach’ of previous resolutions.”
When the law officers refused to authorize the military to draw up targeting plans, Blair reportedly wrote to Holmes, stating that he found their argument “unconvincing.”
Blair continuously received warnings throughout 1998, the report alleged, with Cook’s private secretary writing to Holmes that February to warn that “the negative implications for international support if we resort to military action without a new resolution would be serious.”
When Blair announced military action to Parliament in November, he declared: “I have no doubt that we have the proper legal authority, as it is contained in successive Security Council resolution documents.” British officials claimed that a 1990 resolution authorizing UN members to force Hussein’s army out of Kuwait gave them permission to intervene again in Iraq, an argument that only the US, Japan, and Portugal supported.
According to the documents, Blair saw bombing Iraq as essential to maintaining his close relationship with Clinton. In a meeting with advisers in November, he supposedly said that failing to intervene would cause “extreme damage” to US-UK relations. That same day, even as his own aides maintained that intervention was illegal, Blair told Clinton that the US “could count on our support.”
Five years later, Blair would find himself in the same situation, when he falsely claimed that Hussein was harboring weapons of mass destruction and invoked earlier Security Council resolutions to justify invading Iraq. Again, Blair was warned by his attorney general that military action would defy international law, and again he pressed ahead regardless.
More than a decade later, a public inquiry found that the legal case for the invasion was “far from satisfactory,” while then-UN Secretary General Kofi Annan maintained from the outset that the war was “illegal.”