Blair Steady in Support
'I'm There to the Very End,' Prime Minister Told Bush
By Bob Woodward
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 21, 2004; Page A01
This is the fourth of five articles adapted from "Plan of Attack," a book by Bob Woodward that is a behind-the-scenes account of how and why President Bush decided to go to war against Iraq. Simon & Schuster. © 2004.
On Sunday, March 9, 2003 -- 10 days before launching war with Iraq -- President Bush was increasingly worried about the political peril of his chief ally, British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
"Do you think he could lose his government?" Bush asked Condoleezza Rice, his national security adviser.
"Yes," she replied.
"Would the British really do that?"
"Remember Churchill," she said, noting that he had lost his government after winning World War II. Though Blair's Labor Party had more than a 2 to 1 majority in Parliament, the defection of 150 or more Laborites would leave the opposition Conservatives with the temptation or opportunity to join the Labor defectors to bring down Blair's government in a vote of no confidence.
The president was very worried. He called Blair for one of their regular conversations. They explored the possibilities, which other countries on the U.N. Security Council they could get to support or at least acquiesce in a war. His last choice, said Bush, would be "to have your government go down. We don't want that to happen under any circumstances. I really mean that."
If it would help, Bush said, he would let Blair drop out of the coalition and they would find some other way for Britain and its 41,000 military personnel in the region around Iraq to participate.
"I said I'm with you. I mean it," Blair replied.
Bush said they could think of another role for the British forces -- "a second wave, peacekeepers or something. I would rather go alone than have your government fall."
"I understand that," Blair responded, "and that's good of you to say. I said, I'm with you."
Bush said he really meant that it would be all right for Blair to opt out. "You can bank on that."
"I know you do," Blair said, "and I appreciate that. I absolutely believe in this, too. Thank you. I appreciate that. It's good of you to say that," the prime minister repeated in his very British way. "But I'm there to the very end."
It was an extraordinary offer, confirmed by Bush in an interview in December. Had Blair accepted, the United States would have been virtually alone in launching the war -- with only a few thousand troops from countries such as Australia and Poland.Blair Pushes U.N. Route
On the morning of Sept. 7, 2002, Blair left London on a transatlantic flight to see Bush at Camp David. The president had invited him to come for dinner and a three-hour talk on Iraq. Blair would be on the ground for about six hours -- an unusually short stay.
In Blair's conversations with Bush, it was increasingly clear to the prime minister how committed Bush was to action. But as Blair's foreign secretary, Jack Straw, had signaled to his counterpart, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, in a meeting the month before, the message from the British in essence was: If you are really thinking about war and you want us to be a player, we cannot be unless you go to the United Nations. Powell also favored a U.N. resolution, and he knew this would add to the pressure on Bush, who absolutely had to have Blair on board.
Blair's style was to have ongoing debates with himself and his small circle of advisers, testing, searching, "weighing things up," as one of his advisers said. On Iraq, Blair had traveled several roads. "Look, if Bush hadn't been exercised after 9/11 about these issues," he told his advisers several times, "I would have been worrying about them, and I raised them with him before 9/11." The issues were terrorism, weapons of mass destruction and Iraq. For years, Blair had warned about the threat posed by Saddam Hussein.
Of the three countries Bush cited as constituting the "axis of evil," Blair was most worried about North Korea, and he believed Iran was close to developing dangerous WMD stockpiles. Iraq was at the bottom of the list for the prime minister, one adviser said, suggesting Blair was not at this point as driven about Hussein as Bush.
"Iraq is an American question," that adviser added. "It's not a British question. And it couldn't be anybody else's because no one else had the capability." Britain was not setting the military agenda, needless to say. It was out of the question that Britain would ever go it alone. "We couldn't have invaded Iraq."
Blair was keenly aware that in Britain the question was: Does Blair believe in the United Nations? It was critical domestically for the prime minister to show his own Labor Party, a pacifist party at heart, opposed to war in principle, that he had gone the U.N. route. Public opinion in Britain favored trying to make international institutions work before resorting to force. Going through the United Nations would be a large and much-needed plus.
After taking questions from reporters, the two leaders, with Vice President Cheney in attendance, sat down for a private talk. There was no specific war planning. The issue was political strategy.
Blair said he had to be able to show that he had tried the United Nations and sought a new resolution requiring the readmission of weapons inspectors inside Iraq. "He's there to make the case for a resolution," Bush recalled in an interview in December. He told Blair he had decided to go to the United Nations, and it seemed he would seek a new resolution.
Blair was relieved.
Bush looked Blair in the eye. "Saddam Hussein is a threat. And we must work together to deal with this threat, and the world will be better off without him." Bush recalled that he was "probing" and "pushing" the prime minister. He said it might require -- would probably entail -- war. Blair might have to send British troops.
"I'm with you," the prime minister replied, looking Bush back in the eye, pledging flat out to commit British military force if necessary, the critical promise Bush had been seeking.
"We want you to be part of this," he told the prime minister. Blair's resolve had made a real impression, the president later recalled.
After the meeting, Bush walked into the conference room where Alastair Campbell, the prime minister's communications director, and several other Blair aides were waiting.
"Your man has got cojones," the president said, using a colloquial Spanish term for courage.
The president recalled, "And of course these Brits don't know what cojones are." He said he would call the Camp David session with Blair "the cojones meeting."
As a practical matter, by agreeing to the urging of Blair and Powell to go to the United Nations to seek a new resolution, Bush had improved his position immeasurably. It meant that no matter what happened, as long as Blair kept his word, he would not have to go it alone.An Absolute Political Necessity
Two months later, the U.N. Security Council passed Resolution 1441 unanimously, 15 to 0, requiring new weapons inspections and declaring that if Hussein continued to violate his disarmament obligations, he would face "serious consequences."
The U.N. inspectors went into Iraq, but Bush became frustrated and angry at their lack of progress. In early January 2003, the president secretly decided on war, but he continued to pursue a diplomatic solution publicly.
On Jan. 31, 2003, Bush was scheduled to meet again with Blair at Camp David, but a mix of rain and ice kept them at the White House. Blair told Bush that he needed to get a second U.N. resolution. He had promised that to his party at home, and he was confident that together he and Bush could rally the United Nations and the international community.
Bush was set against a second resolution. So were Cheney and Powell -- a rare case in which they agreed. The first resolution had taken seven weeks, and this one would be much harder. But Blair had the winning argument. It was necessary for him politically. It was no more complicated than that, an absolute political necessity. Blair said he needed the favor. Please.
That was language Bush understood. "If that's what you need, we will go flat out to try and help you get it," he told Blair. He also didn't want to go alone, and without Britain he would be close to going alone.
"Blair's got to deal with his own Parliament, his own people, but he has to deal with the French-British relationship as well, and its context within Europe," Bush said later. "And so he's got a very difficult assignment. Much more difficult, by the way, than the American president in some ways. This was the period where slowly but surely the French became the issue inside Britain."
Bush called it "the famous second-resolution meeting" and said Blair "absolutely" asked for help. The new resolution, which would declare that Hussein had "failed to" comply, was introduced in late February, but the efforts to get other Security Council members to sign on floundered.Pleading for Votes
On March 12, three days after he had declined Bush's offer for Britain to not use its troops in combat, Blair called Bush for an update on where things stood in the Security Council.
"If we don't have the votes," Bush said, "pull it down. We're through." He had had it with the resolutions.
"Would you try one more time?" Blair asked, referring to the key votes of Mexican President Vicente Fox and Chilean President Ricardo Lagos.
"Of course," Bush said. "I'd be glad to do that."
Bush called Fox. "Vicente, I'm insisting there be a vote tomorrow in the U.N. Can we count on your vote?"
"Exactly what's the language like in the resolution?" Fox asked.
"Vicente, we've debated this issue long enough. The security of the United States is on the line. I want your vote."
Fox said he would get back to Bush. Later, during dinner, Rice called Bush to say she had received a phone call saying that Luis Ernesto Derbez, Mexico's foreign minister, was now in charge of the Mexican policy because Fox had to go into the hospital for back surgery.
"Interesting," Bush said. He called Lagos -- a distinguished leader in Bush's view, so he was polite. No threats.
"Can we count on your vote?" Bush asked the 65-year-old Socialist leader.
"Are you sure it's time to bring up the vote?"
"It's time to bring up the vote, Ricardo. We've had this debate too long."
"But we're making progress," Lagos replied.
"That's only because we've got a couple of hundred thousand troops. If those troops weren't there, there'd be even less progress diplomatically. And Saddam Hussein could care less. Any progress you think is being made is illusionary." Bush then stated his predicament clearly. "And I'm not going to leave our troops there. They're either going to go in, and remove him, or they're coming home, Ricardo."
This was a sobering thought. For both practical and political reasons, bringing the troops home without solving the Hussein problem was unthinkable for Bush. It was similar to the position his father had found himself in during January 1991 with 500,000 military men and women in the Middle East. "We have to have a war," President George H.W. Bush had told his advisers several weeks before launching the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Once again a President Bush, this time with more than 200,000 troops in the Middle East, had put himself into the position where he had to have a war.
Bush asked Lagos, "Ricardo, what's your vote?"
No, the Chilean president replied.
"Thank you very much," Bush said.
Bush called Blair and described his talks with Fox and Lagos. "You have to consider these two conversations," Bush said. "This is not positive news. It's over."An End to Diplomatic Planning
The next day Bush told his advisers he wanted to have a summit with Blair to show solidarity. In part it was to fill the void. War was certain, but the diplomatic circus hadn't ended. What could he do? He did not want to just sit around. But Blair's people were concerned about the prime minister leaving the country for even eight hours because of the Margaret Thatcher precedent: In 1990, she went abroad to a conference and was ousted as party leader when she returned. Blair didn't want Bush to give a speech or issue an ultimatum. He, Blair, had to pick the right moment to call for a parliamentary vote. It was Thursday, and any speech from Bush had to wait until at least Monday.
Whatever would serve the British, Bush decided. And on Friday there was another concession to Blair -- an announcement in the Rose Garden of a "road map" for peace in the Middle East that Blair thought should not be delayed until after the Iraq issue was resolved.
The White House proposed a meeting on Bermuda. But that was too far for Blair and too close to the United States. Another White House proposal was for Bush to go to London. Blair's aides balked -- the American president in London at that time would have been a provocation for massive protests. They finally settled on the Azores, a group of Portuguese islands in the North Atlantic closer to London than to Washington.
The summit's purpose, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said, was "to review this diplomacy as it's brought to its conclusion." It began on Sunday, March 16, and included Bush, Blair, Spanish President Jose Maria Aznar and Portuguese Prime Minister Jose Manuel Durao Barraso -- all supporters of a war.
In a closed-door session, Bush told the others that he was going to give a speech giving an ultimatum to Hussein to get out of Iraq with his sons within 48 hours. "That's what I'm going to do, okay?" Bush said. He wasn't consulting. He was informing. "So everybody knows," he added.
They turned to the possibility that France, Russia or some other Security Council member would introduce a counter-resolution to delay "serious consequences" and force a vote. That could be a real problem. All they could do, they agreed, was get on the phone and head off the undecideds, get their commitment to oppose a counter-resolution and vote no if necessary.
Blair stiffened. "If another country tried to introduce a new resolution for the sole purpose of delaying us," the prime minister said, "we'd have to regard that as a hostile act diplomatically."
This brought them back to the French, the guiding force of delay. "I'd be glad to veto something of theirs," Bush said. "Really glad!"
The diplomatic planning was over. "You know," Bush said, "we're going to, we have to keep planning for a future postwar Iraq, and we all agree on the five basic principles. Territorial integrity has to remain. We need immediate, we need to be ready with humanitarian aid to get it in there immediately to head off any food or displaced-persons crisis."
The United Nations would continue its oil-for-food program, Bush said. "We have to build an international consensus for Iraq, a new Iraq, at peace with its neighbors, and we'll go back to the U.N. for another resolution after the war. The U.N. can help with many issues but should not run the country."
He made it clear that the coalition would be in charge.
When the meeting broke up, Rice saw chief White House speechwriter Michael Gerson, who had come with Bush on the 4,600-mile round trip to the Azores so they could work on the ultimatum speech. "Do you have a copy of the speech?" Rice asked, and she handed it to Blair.
Gerson was a little bug-eyed. It was about as closely held a document as there might be. At the same time, Gerson realized that it could have a tremendous impact not only on American politics but also on the course of British politics because of the impending vote of confidence in Parliament. Gerson noticed that Campbell, Blair's communications and strategy adviser, was reading the copy and jotting notes.
The British wanted the speech to be more conditional, with the phrase or concept "if war comes" liberally sprinkled throughout. Though it implied war, it should not be a war speech. A kernel of hope for a peaceful solution had to remain.
Blair had to get home to tend to the politics of war and rebellion in his party. White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. noted that Blair had been filled with both resolve and angst. It wasn't confident resolve. Rice thought it was very much touch-and-go about Blair's future. As she stood watching the British depart, she said, "Gee, I hope this isn't the last time we see them."
On Air Force One, Bush and Rice agreed it was now just a matter of managing the politics of the United Nations and not pulling the plug before Blair had his vote in Parliament. Karen Hughes and Dan Bartlett, the former and current communications directors, joined them, and they went over the speech draft line by line. The British suggestions were acceptable, and Gerson went back on one of the plane's computers and carefully put in the changes.
After Gerson was finished, he joined the president and all the others who were about 10 minutes into the Mel Gibson movie "Conspiracy Theory." Bush loudly summarized the plot, and during the rest of the movie he made fun of it as fairly predictable.Blair's Day of Reckoning
In a 15-minute call the next day, Monday, March 17, Bush and Blair, back in their respective capitals, coordinated efforts to make sure there was no counter-resolution. They agreed that the Russians would have to be talked to at various levels.
Blair said his prospects looked better, but it was still tough for him right now. "I think I can win," Blair said. "I'm concerned about the margin of victory. I don't want to depend on Tory votes. I want to win my own party strong. I know I'm not going to win them all, but I don't want the Tories to be able to say without us, you would have lost, and I'm working hard on the Labor Party to make sure I get a very clear solid majority of the Labor votes."
Tuesday, March 18, was Blair's day of reckoning. Even some of his leading critics called his one-hour speech in Parliament that day one of his most effective and passionate.
"In this dilemma, no choice is perfect, no cause ideal," Blair said. "But on this decision hangs the fate of many things."
At 1:30 p.m., Bush called Blair to say, "Tremendous speech."
"I know now I've got the votes to win the resolution," Blair said, "because the whip counters have been up all night working away. And the only question is the margin, but I'm confident."
They talked about the need to give Russia, France and Germany a way back into the fold.
Bush had never paid such close attention to a debate or vote in a foreign legislature as the one going on that day in the British Parliament. "What's the vote count?" he had asked a number of times during the day.
Finally, at 5:15 p.m. -- 10:15 p.m. London time -- Parliament voted. Blair won by 396 to 217. Though he had lost a full third of his own party's vote, the Tories -- and Britain -- had voted for war.
Mark Malseed contributed to this report.