Was British Participation in the Iraq War Legal? (ii): Why We Went to War
Boris Johnson (Conservative MP and Editor, the Spectator), Anthony Carty (Professor, School of Law, Westminster University) and J. Sean Curtin (Fellow, GLOCOM)
The argument about whether the Iraq War was legal or not has once again ignited the British political scene. Using a new Freedom of Information Act, the media has obtained the resignation letter of Elizabeth Wilmshurst, a former deputy legal adviser to the Foreign Office (the British Foreign Ministry), who quit her job just as the war began because she believed it was illegal. Her resignation letter strongly implies that Lord Goldsmith, the top government legal advisor, unexplainably reversed his legal opinion about the legality of the war shortly before it began.
The letter adds to the impression that the war may not have been completely legal or the advice upon which Lord Goldsmith based his decision may have been flawed. The complete 13-page legal advice which took Britain to war has never been fully published, only a one page summary has been released. This has led to increasingly loud demands for the whole advice to be published. Prominent figures calling for the disclosure are the former Foreign Minister Robin Cook and former Cabinet minister Clare Short, both of whom quit Tony Blair's Cabinet over the war. Distinguished legal experts like international law professor Phillippe Sands have also powerfully argued that the war was illegal (see the first part of this article).
The current argument has caught the media's attention because part of Wilmshurst's resignation letter was censored. However, the missing section has been obtained by the media. The Foreign Ministry justified its actions claiming the blanked out part was covered by exemptions relating to the professional privilege applying to a law officer in the formulation of government policy.
Demands for the full legal advice to be published have reached fever pitch, creating a serious problem for Tony Blair in the run-up to an expected 5 May general election. Two years after the Iraq War, the issue is still causing him considerable political damage and the issue may become a key election theme.
Sean Curtin: I think most people who opposed the war did so for the following three reasons. These were expressed to me by members of the public who took part in the mass demonstrations before the war. One, they didn't believe there were any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and there weren't. Two, they didn't believe there was any link between Al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein and there wasn't any. Three, they thought the attack on Iraq was a distraction in the war on terror and it was. These are the main reasons why people opposed the conflict. The reason the legal basis for the war has become so prominent is because Tony Blair sold the idea of military action on the grounds that it was legal and by emphasizing the WMD threat.
Boris Johnson: I agree with your analysis. That is exactly why people did oppose the war and as a matter of fact, I agree with them on the weapons of mass destruction issue. My magazine, the Spectator, supports the impeachment of Tony Blair for his great deception of parliament and the people about the steps and measures he made in respect to WMDs. It was part of my general thesis that Phillipe Sands' (see the first part of this article) arguments in his book, Lawless World, [in which he claims that the attorney general Lord Goldsmith had warned Tony Blair on 7 March 2003] that the use of force against Iraq could be illegal may be correct and the war might have been illegal.
Anthony Carty: Why do you think Tony Blair went to war against Iraq?
Boris Johnson: I think Blair went to war because he construes. He is very aware of his Thatcherian aura. He was against the Falklands War in 1982 and learnt from it that you should never go against the transatlantic alliance. You should never be wrong-footed by history's heir. He wanted to be with America. At a profound level he thought it would be in Britain's long-term interest to be together with Washington. Once he could see that Washington was going to invade, he thought it was in Britain's long-term strategic interest to be there, getting as much influence as he could. He is also a very evangelical type of guy and he probably believes that some good will come of the war. Actually, so do I. I also believe it is possible that some good will come of all this.
The accompanying part of this article can be found here.
The above comments were made at Chatham House (Royal Institute for International Affairs) in London on 9 March 2005.