Andrey Kulikov
Editor-in-chief at Europe Insight


How the United Kingdom sacrificed its goals in Iraq for its “special relationship” with the US

Upon the completion of a seven-year investigation and the publication in July of Sir John Chilcot’s report on the UK’s participation in the war in Iraq, everyone was discussing the undermined UN authority, the inadequate legal basis for the invasion, and poor intelligence and analysis. However, there is one failure among them all which, perhaps, received the least attention despite its being the most important from the point of view of the average Briton as well as that of a government official. This is the failure of unmet goals.

In truth, the investigation itself—including the questions which preceded it over the ethical and legal grounds for the invasion and its subsequently devastating conclusions—became possible precisely due to the fact that the UK failed to achieve its goals in Iraq. This lack of success and a feeling of hopelessness compounded doubts until they reached a critical mass within society and the search for reasons and culprits became inevitable. As in the case with other failures, the storyline on the goals and objectives is revealed in the report through the relationship with the US. This “special relationship” between the two countries is the report’s main foreign policy component. “The approach of the British government can be understood only in the context of dialogue with Washington and the evolution of American politics,” explain the authors.

In the early 2000s, this “special relationship” was the subject of mass mockery, and the UK’s public position spawned a wave of derogatory epithets directed against it such as “the 51st state”, “Washington’s poodle” and “obedient state”. Curiously, excerpts from governmental documents at that time show that there was originally no reason for such a perception. On the contrary, up until a certain point, London was doing its best to influence Washington. Then Foreign Secretary Robin Cook spoke about this, and analysists also recommended it.

At that time, the UK saw its goal as sufficiently clear: make Iraq safe, respectful of law and order, and a full-fledged member of the international community. To ensure this result, it proposed imposing sanctions and continuing the world community’s pressure on Iraq. It considered the forcible displacement of Saddam Hussein, especially by means of a military operation, to be an extreme and completely undesirable measure.

The strategy gradually started change with George W. Bush, whose presidency began in January 2001. His administration was judged as tougher from the very outset. And against this backdrop, the cautious proposals of the British diplomats appeared especially peaceable.

Most likely, it was this essential and obvious difference which prompted the British Foreign Office to separately recommend the avoidance of a split with the USA in January 2001. In the following months, both countries revised Iraq strategies At the same time, London continually strove to persuade its ally that its own approach was justified.

Washington, however, was in no rush to find common agreement or further develop its own position. There, sanctions were considered ineffective, and they did not see sufficient grounds for military intervention. The situation did not even change after the 11 September attacks. George Bush Jr.’s initial reaction was to leave Iraq alone as long as there was no direct evidence of its involvement in terrorism.

However, the successes of the military campaign in Afghanistan gave inspiration to the allies. Confidence in the possibility of a nearly global coalition against terrorism grew on both sides of the Atlantic. Iraq did not fit under this definition. It was difficult to suspect Saddam Hussein, who had squeezed radical Islamists out of his country, of religious terrorism. So they began persistently pinning on him the label of nuclear terrorist “in the medium and long term” and then declared him part of the “axis of evil” along with Iran and North Korea.

But such a twist did not help with the formation of a broad coalition, especially in the UN Security Council. “The United Kingdom could face an unpleasant dilemma,” Chilcot’s report recounts a warning from the country’s Foreign Office in December 2001. “To support illegal and extremely unpopular actions or distance itself from a key American policy.”

Throughout 2002, as the chances of getting approval from the UN Security Council waned, London leaned increasingly towards choosing the USA’s side in this dilemma. Regime change in Iraq became a priority and reflected the united vision of the leaderships of the two countries. The former goals were literally tossed by the wayside. On 28 July 2002, Tony Blair sent George W. Bush the following note: “I will be with you, whatever. But this is the moment to assess bluntly the difficulties.” Less than a year remained till the start of the inglorious war in Iraq.

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