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'He's bad; we're good' —Tony Blair's notes to George Bush on Iraq war revealed

The British prime minister could be gushing in his praise for the American president, but very much aware that the Iraq war could ruin their legacy in history.

by Sarah Francoise
Jul 6 2016, 4:37pm

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair addressing reporters after the release of the Chilcot report on Wednesday. (Photo by Stefan Rousseau/EPA)

The Chilcot report published Wednesday — the findings of an independent inquiry into Britain's involvement in the war in Iraq — includes dozens of notes and letters written by Tony Blair to George W. Bush, private communications with the US president which run the gamut from gushing notes to diplomatic laundry lists, and reveal how the two leaders went from chums to war allies.

The report delivers damning insight into then Prime Minister Blair's decision to go to war, which is described by the report as hasty and ill-conceived.

In a "Note to the President" stamped September 12, 2001 — one day after 9/11 — Blair sets the agenda for the next seven years. "Some of this will require action that some will baulk at. But we are better to act now and explain and justify our actions than let the day be put off until some further, perhaps even worse catastrophe occurs," he writes, complete with spelling error (the correct spelling is "balk at".)

As though pre-empting a future conflict of ideas, the PM argues for a swift response. "It is now that the world is in a state of shock; now that it feels its maximum support for the US; now that it can be co-opted most easily."

One month later, Blair advises Bush that "removing the Taliban" in Afghanistan will take the pressure off "finding UBL" — Osama Bin Laden. "If they fall," he writes, "we can clean him up later."

In the same note, the PM highlights the lack of public support for an intervention in Iraq, and warns that, "[...] If we hit Iraq now, we would lose the entire Arab world, Russia, probably half the EU." Saddam, he writes, can be dealt with later.

Phase 2 — described by Blair as "the medium and longer term campaign against terrorism in all its forms" — would be best kept out of the public eye for now. "We just don't need it debated too freely in public until we know what exactly we want to do and how we can do it," he writes to his correspondent in the US.

In a section of the same note titled "Propaganda," Blair stresses the need for a "dedicated, tightly-knit propaganda unit for the war generally, and for the Arab and Moslem world in particular."

The need for a "softening up" of public opinion is discussed again on December 4, 2001, when Blair advises sticking to a "deliberately vague" timeframe for military action as a way to "force concessions" out of a fearful Saddam. In this missive, the PM describes any link between 9/11 and al Qaeda as "at best very tenuous."

In the same letter, he mentions "offering carrots" to the Somal transitional government in exchange for their severing links with terrorist organizations, and warns against the "unintended consequences" of military intervention, both in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Blair also takes the opportunity — as he does in several of the missives — to discuss the "MEPP" [Middle East Peace Process] — apologizing in advance to his friend "for being a bore on this."

In July 2002, Blair stresses his commitment to the transatlantic relationship, writing to Bush, "I will be with you whatever," a phrase interpreted by some as an assurance that the UK would do anything the US asked, including war — which would not break out until March of the following year. Still, Blair also warns the President of the dangers of invading Iraq without UN and international support. "This is not Kosovo. This is not Afghanistan. This is not even the Gulf war," he writes, referring to the 1991 conflict.

Without UN backing, warns Blair, Germany, France and other key potential allies would likely not come on board. But moments of epistolary diplomacy are interspersed with encouragements for military action. In this note, Blair argues for a "generated start," which could be brought forward "should Saddam do something stupid."

In a handwritten note dated September 12 (presumably 2002), the PM congratulates Bush on "a brilliant speech" at the UN General Assembly. In that address, Bush spoke of Iraq's imminent nuclear capacity and its multiple violations of conditions imposed by the security council. He also made it clear that the US would launch an intervention in Iraq with or without UN authority.

Half a year later, Blair addresses another note to Bush, advising that Saddam could use any delay to "mess us about, sucking us back into a game of hide and seek with the [weapons] inspectors" until "a smoking gun" — i.e. weapons of mass destruction — is found.

Blair also warns that "forfeiting" UN backing will mean "losing the high ground."

"No one is really prepared for war, except us," Blair tells his friend, rather prophetically. As in many of the notes, his warnings and notes of caution come with a side of gushing. "In part, we are victims of our own success," he writes.

"Your strength on the issue has forced Saddam to let Inspectors back in; has made him weak and back in his box," says Blair. "So everyone asks: why bother?"

He suggests postponing the start of the intervention, arguing that a delay might give chief UN weapons inspector Hans Blix enough time to "find the smoking gun," Saddam to "crack" and crucially, afford the US and the UK more time to win over public opinion. "Opinion sort of feels we are bent on war, would prefer it to peace even," he states.

In a later letter that sets out a "fundamental goal" for the future, Blair tells Bush he has an opportunity to "define international politics for the next generation" and to influence "the true post-Cold War world order."

In the same letter, he warns Bush of a growing anti-US sentiment in Europe — a reality made apparent to him through conversations "with intelligent Europeans," including one, a unspecified European leader, who "seriously compared Don Rumsfeld with Bin Laden."

In the same letter, he urges his friend not to alienate France, for fear it will "cause too much trouble."

In another note, Blair shares more thoughts about how to spin the war in a way that might win over detractors. "Anyone else speaking — politician or military — should use the message, or not speak." He goes on to spell out the message: "He's bad; we're good; he's going to lose; we're going to win."

The next letter was sent after the invasion. In it, Blair concedes that re-building Iraq will be a difficult task, and stresses the importance of empowering the Iraqis to build up their own infrastructure and security.

In a later note, Blair reflects on the collective Schadenfreude — that's the word he uses, German for "pleasure at the misfortune of others" — resulting from the invasion: "Bush and Blair started it. It's their problem, let them sort it,"

In this note, Blair appears to be feeling the pressure of international opinion, and warns against delays in decision-making and poor coordination between Washington, London and the new authorities in Baghdad. In a section titled "Way forward," Blair says the two allies must "Get our confidence in our story back. Iraq is better without Saddam."

He signs off saying that, "By this time next year, it better be going right, not wrong. For us and the world!"

But in April 2004, as support for the war continues to erode, Blair warns Bush that their opponents "are able to portray the war on terror as either a bid for American domination, a plot to help Israel, or even just an indulgence by trigger-happy ideologues."

As it becomes increasingly obvious that no "smoking gun" will be found, Blair turns his thoughts to the pair's political futures, concluding that their co-dependency on matters of foreign policy could spell a double demise.