The Second Resolution Question

Owen Bennett-Jones

  • Iraq: The Cost of War by Jeremy Greenstock
    Heinemann, 467 pp, £25.00, November 2016, ISBN 978 1 78515 125 5

Jeremy Greenstock was the UK ambassador to the United Nations during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq and then the special envoy for Iraq, based in Baghdad during the occupation. Obviously he wrote his memoirs with a view to having them published. Mistakes had been made in Iraq and there was public interest in what knowledgeable insiders had to say about them. But he also accepted his duty to the state, submitting the book to the appropriate Foreign Office committees. In 2005 when the foreign secretary, Jack Straw, decided the book shouldn’t be published until the ministers involved were out of office, Greenstock accepted the ban with no public protest. He went on, as planned before he wrote the book, to take up a post running the British deep state’s favourite foreign policy conference centre at Ditchley Park in Oxfordshire. Straw defended his ban on the grounds that any senior colleague who was open about the fact that he or she was planning to write a near contemporaneous memoir would never have been given a job in the first place because no one would want to discuss things openly with them. But Straw had a difficulty. The UK ambassador in Washington, Christopher Meyer, had already published a memoir, DC Confidential, which also dealt with the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. If Meyer had been allowed to publish on what grounds could Greenstock be stopped? Straw’s tortuous reasoning, given to the Public Administration Select Committee in 2006, was that Meyer’s book was publishable because it was tittle-tattle. In fact, the scurrilous nature of DC Confidential meant that Meyer had suffered a fate far worse than being censored. ‘The guy,’ Straw said with the disdain of a true establishment insider, ‘has been completely ostracised.’

Greenstock’s book, then, could not be published because it was not tittle-tattle. It could certainly never be described as such. The accounts of the prolonged and circuitous prewar negotiations at the UN are so exhaustive that, at the time of the ban, Foreign Office officials joked that had Saddam wanted to hide his WMD, Sir Jeremy’s book might have been a good place. No doubt, Iraq: The Cost of War would have had more impact had it been published at the time it was written. The assessments of, for example, Paul Wolfowitz – identified by Greenstock as a key influence on the decision to go to war – and the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, Paul Bremer, would have attracted more comment when these figures were more firmly in the public eye. So too might Greenstock’s apology to the people of Iraq: the US and UK helped Iraqis escape Saddam Hussein’s brutality, Greenstock writes, but failed to shape a better life for the country. For the most part, however, his book contains the modulated assessments of a man who spent decades in the Foreign Office, where papering over the cracks is a more highly prized skill than shocking revelation, polemic or invective.

For all that, Greenstock’s book does describe one occasion when he went off message, allowing his personal stance to trump his role as civil servant. In 2002 he told the Foreign Office he could not remain as UK ambassador to the United Nations unless the government took an approach more closely aligned with his own on the question of possible military action in Iraq. Before looking at his reasons, we need to consider the case of a Foreign Office official who did resign over Iraq. In a memo dated 18 March 2003 Elizabeth Wilmshurst, the Foreign Office’s deputy legal adviser, who had been in the diplomatic service for 29 years, told her superiors that using force against Iraq without a second UN Security Council resolution would be illegal. ‘I cannot in conscience go along with advice – within the Office or to the public or Parliament – which asserts the legitimacy of military action without such a resolution,’ she wrote.

Wilmshurst’s concerns can be traced back to 1990 and Security Council Resolution 678 which authorised Iraq’s ejection from Kuwait. In the years that followed Saddam Hussein defied various Security Council resolutions concerning the disarmament of Iraq. As the pressure increased, Security Council Resolution 1441 of 2002 threatened Saddam with ‘serious consequences’ if he did not fully co-operate with UN weapons inspectors. But who would assess the extent of his co-operation? Wilmshurst believed any decision that Iraq was in breach would have to be made by the Security Council, which would have to state explicitly in a second resolution that Iraq was non-compliant. It would not be good enough for an individual government to make this determination. Until a few days before the invasion her view was not controversial. The Foreign Office’s lawyers had consistently argued that that a second resolution would be required – as had the attorney general, Sir Peter Goldsmith. Tony Blair himself had tried to secure a second resolution. But then, just as the negotiations for a second resolution – handled by Greenstock – failed, the attorney general changed his view, declaring that Resolution 1441 itself revived the authorisation for military action given 13 years before in Resolution 678. According to Blair’s account in his memoir, A Journey, Greenstock played a significant part in helping shift Goldsmith towards the view that a second resolution wasn’t legally necessary.

Wilmshurst’s line manager, the Foreign Office’s chief legal adviser, Sir Michael Wood, shared her view that a second resolution was legally necessary. But Wood did not resign. He briefly considered it, he told Chilcot, but decided not to follow Wilmshurst. ‘Questions of conscience are very individual questions,’ he told the inquiry. ‘I carried on, and I think – I wouldn’t say this was the only consideration – but it would have certainly been more disruptive for the legal advisers in the Foreign Office if there had been a whole host of resignations.’

So what of Greenstock’s position? His point had been not that there was a legal need for a second resolution but rather that there had been a need for a first one. Over the course of 2002 it had became increasingly clear that the Bush administration wanted regime change in Iraq and was not particularly bothered about seeking the UN’s approval. As everyone agreed, US action in such circumstances would be illegal. The Americans had three options to justify going to war in Iraq. They could argue that they were acting against Iraq in self-defence. But plainly they weren’t. They could argue there was a humanitarian crisis looming. There wasn’t. The only remaining way to go to war legally was to get Security Council authorisation. Greenstock found the possibility that the Americans would act without such authorisation intolerable: ‘I warned London in October that if a new resolution was impossible to secure and the UK wanted to go ahead with military force nonetheless I would not find it possible to stay in my job in New York. Once Resolution 1441 of November 2002 had been unanimously adopted, the legal situation looked more secure.’ His threat then, was not like Wilmshurst’s to quit the FCO, but a more limited insistence that he would resign from his role as ambassador to the UN. ‘I was not making the point for effect or attention,’ he writes in his book. ‘It would be a watershed for me.’ But he also suggested to Chilcot that he wanted, in part, to influence policy: ‘Maybe I thought that that was a stiffener for London on what I thought should happen.’

On the legality of the war most international lawyers and indeed the UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, sided with Wilmshurst, and perhaps it’s a sense of vulnerability on this point that leads Greenstock to make an uncharacteristically impolite swipe at his former colleague. While Wilmshurst objected to the legal case for war in 2003, Greenstock writes, she took no such stand in 1998 when the UK also took the view that an old resolution could authorise new action, during the negotiation of Security Council Resolution 1205 which resulted in a US/UK air campaign against Iraq. While this is a good debating point, it’s also a cheap shot. Just because Wilmshurst and others thought the revival arguments were valid in 1998 does not mean they were obliged to take the same view of the changed circumstances created by the deliberately ambiguous language of Resolution 1441.

Even if Greenstock did not think a second resolution was legally necessary, he did believe it would be politically desirable because it would give the use of military force greater legitimacy. There were, after all, plenty of reasons for people to think military action illegitimate. At the time 1441 was passed some of the Security Council members who voted for it said in public that any military action would require further authorisation. The phrase used in the resolution to express what would follow Iraqi non-compliance – ‘serious consequences’ – was, at French and Russian insistence, vaguer than the UN’s staple phrase implying the future use of military force: ‘all necessary measures’. And the UN weapons inspectors were saying they needed more time to establish whether or not Iraq had disarmed. Greenstock’s distinction between legality and legitimacy has more than a touch of Yes Minister about it. And anyway, many thought the war was illegitimate because they believed all the arguments about the disarmament of Iraq were a smokescreen obscuring the US’s real purposes in wanting to go to war there. Greenstock briefly outlines some of those reasons: ‘Saddam Hussein was seen as an unresolved challenge to the superpower’s interests, a threat to Israel, a supporter of Palestinian terrorism and a possible source of a direct attack on American interests.’ Greenstock was a self-declared member of the Foreign Office’s Arabist camel corps so it’s perhaps not surprising that he sometimes found George W. Bush’s support for Israel so strong as to contradict US interests: ‘The significance of Israel as a factor in all of this has received less attention than I had expected.’ He dismisses the idea that the invasion was all about oil but also observes that in the days after the invasion, the Ministry of Oil in Baghdad was one of the few institutions to be properly protected by US forces.

Once Greenstock moves on to the occupation of Iraq one issue predominates: British subservience to US power. Blair had repeatedly argued that sticking so closely to Washington gave him leverage to influence and restrain the US. But, as this book demonstrates, that influence never existed. Before Greenstock left for Baghdad he met State Department officials but was unable to secure any sort of meeting in the Pentagon. Then there were discussions in London concerning his status. Since the US and UK were the two legally accountable occupying powers in Iraq, Greenstock could have become Bremer’s deputy. But Bremer, anxious not to be constrained by non-Americans, wanted Greenstock to have a vaguer designation and it was agreed he would be called the UK special envoy for Iraq. Looking on the bright side of this diplomatic slight, Whitehall hoped the arrangement would free Greenstock up to offer an alternative British perspective. The problem was that Bremer was free to ignore British advice. And by all accounts he often did. We have a good idea how Bremer viewed these issues because at the time Greenstock’s book was being blocked by Straw, Bremer was rushing his into print. Describing Greenstock as the ‘British ambassador’ Bremer makes just four references to the UK’s top man in Iraq and only two concerning policy issues, neither of them complimentary. Others who spent time in the Green Zone confirm that Bremer had little time for Greenstock’s views. Rajiv Chandrasekaran of the Washington Post described a meeting at which Greenstock was present with Bremer – or the viceroy, as Chandrasekaran calls him – and the US secretary of state, Colin Powell. When Greenstock suggested that one of Bremer’s edicts might have been too severe: ‘the viceroy snapped at him. The message was clear: Don’t contradict me.’ In 2006 Greenstock discussed his powerlessness with Blair’s biographer Anthony Seldon: ‘I often questioned their decision, which is the kind of discussion you have in every Foreign Office corridor on any issue. But it’s not natural in the American style, which is to know what the president wants and to go for it.’

Bremer’s decisions to disband the Iraqi army and to insist on deep de-Baathification are now widely reckoned to have significantly contributed to the US failure in Iraq. Greenstock portrays Bremer as haughty and inflexible, determined to implement a plan drawn up in Washington irrespective of the conditions he found on the ground. ‘He disliked the sceptical leaning of the British approach, to which our low grade power and resources did not in his view really entitle us.’ At another point he observes: ‘There was a limit to which I could convince Ambassador Bremer that the current approach was not working … It seemed to me from quite early on that we were really going around in circles and gradually losing the American ear.’ Greenstock’s descriptions of Bremer’s staffers in the Green Zone in Baghdad are reminiscent of Pyle in Graham Greene’s Quiet American: ‘excessive reliance was placed on young Americans with the right political credentials and excellent academic training but no experience or understanding of the nature of Iraq.’

Mark Etherington, a former British army officer who became governor of Wasit province in post-invasion southern Iraq, wrote an amusing description of his first meeting with Greenstock in Baghdad. Greenstock – who was once a Latin teacher at Eton – used the word ‘lacuna’ to describe problems in Iraq so often that his staff in Baghdad had sweatshirts printed with the legend: ‘UK Special Representative’s Office – It’s a Lacuna.’ When Etherington met him, it was clear that his superior had far more important matters to attend to: perhaps, Etherington mused, he was planning a major naval engagement. ‘Our meeting was brief and Sir Jeremy said little. After a moment an aide entered the room to end my agony, presumably to tell him that forward elements of Her Majesty’s Fleet had sighted the enemy. I made my apologies, offered a damp handshake and left. I doubted that I would remain long in his thoughts.’

I remember reading this when it was published in 2005 and wondering why Greenstock didn’t take the opportunity to give a comprehensive briefing to one of the few British political officials who would have real power on the ground in occupied Iraq. Now I have an answer. Far from contemplating how subordinates such as Etherington could fill Iraq’s various lacunae, Greenstock was probably brooding over the terrible mess all around him and despairing at the UK’s powerlessness to do anything about it.