Much has been said and written about these seven leaked documents.
These minutes have been discussed extensively in the United States because of the light they shed on the way in which the Bush administration came to the decision to invade Iraq. But they also offer a unique insight into the making of British foreign policy. What they show is policy-making by intelligent amateurs who are hopelessly out of their depth.
It is true that the UK was asking some important and sensible questions – in particular, officials identified clearly that the US had no plans for establishing a democratic government in Iraq after the war. For example, the Foreign Secretary’s minute says:
We also have to answer the big question — what will this action achieve? There seems to be a larger hole in this than in anything. No one has satisfactorily answered . . . how there can be any certainty that the replacement regime will be better.
But they also reveal that UK policy-makers had a very slender grasp of the detail of the issues with which they were dealing. For example, David Manning’s memo says:
Will the Sunni majority really respond to an uprising led by Kurds and Shias?
You might think that the Prime Minister’s foreign policy adviser would know that Shi’ite, not Sunni, Muslims form the majority in Iraq – or that he would have taken the trouble to find out before minuting the Prime Minister on the subject. But not our boys from the British Foreign Office. We don’t need to know anything very much about a country before we take part in an invasion to set it on the road to democracy.
What is most alarming is that the discussion in these memos is all about how Britain will build public support for participating in an inevitable US-led invasion of Iraq. Not for one moment does anyone step back and ask whether this would, or would not, be an effective or ethical foreign policy.
It is worth reading the memos in full:
- Minute of March 8 2002 from the Cabinet Office, known as the Options Paper.
- Minute of 14 March 2002 from the Prime Minister’s Foreign Policy Adviser (broadly equivalent to the US National Security Adviser) David Manning which details a meeting with Condeleeza Rice.
- Minute of March 18 2002 from Christopher Meyer, then British Ambassador to Washington, reporting a meeting with Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz.
- Minute of March 22 2002 by Peter Rickets, then the Political Director of the Foreign Office, that weighs the political implications of marching to war with the Americans.
- Minute of March 25, 2002 from Foreign Secretary Jack Straw to the Prime Minister in advance of Blair’s trip to Texas.
- Minute of July 21, 2002, known as the Cabinet Office Paper, which details "conditions for military action" for the Prime Minister’s meeting of July 23 2002.
- Minutes of the Prime Minister’s meeting on July 23 2002, known as the The Downing Street Memo.