I published this account of the political decision-making process back in 2010 (while awaiting that immanent Chilcot Report). Anyone wanting a refresher on the main actors and earlier report findings, read on …

On the 20th March 2003 a predominantly US and UK military coalition attacked Iraq, officially to uphold a series of 17 breached UN resolutions dating back to 1991. Ostensibly, the invasion was justified by George Bush and Tony Blair as the only means of removing Iraq’s ‘weapons of mass destruction’ (WMD) and halting its support for international terrorism. ‘Regime change’ and the establishment of regional stability and democracy were other reasons given. Military resistance was subdued and the war was over in six weeks (1st May). The invasion has turned out to be a foreign policy mistake of grand proportions and with tragic consequences. Following the invasion and removal of Saddam Hussein and his Ba’ath Party ruling structure, Iraq quickly degenerated into a state of violent anarchy. Since then, over a million have civilians died, several million refugees have been displaced, over four thousand occupying troops killed, and basic infrastructures destroyed. ‘WMD’ have never been found. The policy also severely tarnished the reputations of Blair, Bush and their respective parties, as well as other political leaders who supported them. This leaves several questions: Why did the Bush and Blair administrations proceed without UN support, without conclusive evidence and (debatably) contrary to international law? Why, at the height of their popularity, were they prepared to dismiss public opinion and take such political risks? Were the arguments of ‘WMD’ and international terrorism genuine or merely a manufactured cover for less politically-acceptable objectives? Why were they decisively backed by their respective executives, legislative assemblies and national media in these decisions? And, what part did media and communication play?

For anyone looking into the Iraq case, there now exist many hundreds of conflicting accounts published on the Iraq war and the events and decisions leading up to the invasion. In trying to investigate these questions the aim was to gain evidence from a number of alternative spheres, including those of: the public, journalists, parliament and MPs, the government and specific foreign policy networks. These were gained from a mixture of existing polling data, academic studies of reporting and news content, official reports, (auto) biographies and personal interviewees. In total, the subject of Iraq was discussed with some 37 MPs, journalists and civil servants, usually on the basis of their close professional interest in the case. Several declined to comment in any detail as, even some years later, it is still a sensitive subject. Indeed another official enquiry began in 2009 and is due to report back in 2010.

The Critical Narrative

For many critics and sceptics of the war, those who emerged in advance of or since the 2003 campaign, some strong arguments are put forward. For liberals and many conservative thinkers, at a minimum, the public was deceived and Iraq has further encouraged distrust of the media and political institutions. For critical scholars, the case is a classic example of political elites abusing their power, and managing or spinning their media as a means of influencing public opinion and neutralising political opposition. Either way, the narrative flow is one where small elite networks, at the top of the US and UK political and bureaucratic hierarchies, for ulterior motives, persuaded those below them to support a problematic foreign policy. In turn, each set of publics persuaded those further down the pyramid of public opinion. The component parts of this narrative are as follows: One, Iraq’s WMD capability was very limited and US and UK leaders knew that it was not an immanent threat (Kampfner, 2004, Short, 2005, US Senate, 2008). The country’s ‘WMD’ capability had been largely contained and dismantled since the first Gulf War in 1991. Two, regime change in Iraq was a long-term objective of US foreign policy and ‘9/11’ offered a favourable political climate for action (Mazarr, 2007, Khong, 2008). For several reasons (political, military, economic) a small group of ‘neocon’ Whitehouse appointees and advisors had long-since decided that it was in the best interests of the United States and the West that the Iraqi Government be overthrown. The events of September the 11th (‘9/11’) 2001 were politically expedient for the neocons and ultimately enabled them to push the Bush Administration to move forward on their long-term goal of ‘regime change’.

Three, Tony Blair supported the US action to gain leverage for other geo-political policies, such as the resolution of the Israeli-Palestine conflict (Meyer, 2005, Seldon, 2005, Dunne, 2008). Blair’s foreign policy, since coming to power in 1997, had been tightly linked to successive US administrations (Clinton then Bush) across a range of geo-political issues. Following the attack on the twin towers, he immediately moved closer to Bush. Four, the US and UK administrations decided on invading Iraq early, somewhere between September 2001 and April 2002; i.e., at least 11 months before the actual invasion (Woodward, 2003, Clarke, 2004, Kampfner, 2004, Short, 2005, Dunne, 2008). Five, both sets of leaders and their inner circles put pressure on their respective intelligence services to find evidence of Iraqi WMD and links to al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups (HoC, July 2003, Butler, 2004, US Senate, 2004, 2008, US Government, 2005, Oborne, 2007). Six, both networks side-stepped traditional cabinet, bureaucratic and parliamentary procedures, committees and systems of check and balances (Woodward, 2004, Butler, 2004, Kampfner, 2004, Seldon, 2005, Short, 2005, Meyer, 2005). Seven, both took a selective view of the existing intelligence, frequently ignoring its weaknesses, stated caveats, and contradictory findings (Kampfner, 2004, Short, 2005, Butler, 2004, US Senate, 2008).

Eight, both sides developed extensive propaganda operations to ‘sell’ the war, to their own political supporters, to their parliamentary bodies, to other national leaders, and to media and citizens at home and abroad (Brown, 2003, Stauber and Rampton, 2003, Miller, 2004, Snow, 2004, Kull et al, 2004). The Whitehouse went further and on several occasions suggested that Saddam Hussein was linked to al-Qaeda, the ‘9/11’ attacks, and was arming international terrorists. Nine, they deliberately misled all these audiences (ibid, and US Senate, 2008) with a series of public statements and official (or ‘dodgy’) dossiers of evidence. Ten, the respective parliaments, main opposition parties, and national media were too uncritical of what was happening until after the initial invasion and occupation (Thussu and Freedman, 2003, Lewis, 2004, Miller, 2004, Entman, 2004). Many of those interviewed, whether they supported the attack on Iraq at the time or not, concurred with several or all parts of this narrative:

(Glenda Jackson MP) ‘I just don’t know how intelligent people could buy into that [WMD Argument] because it was so patently not true. And I remember watching the live broadcast … Jack Straw’s mouth going dry and Colin Powell looking as though he’d been pole-axed because the weapons inspectors weren’t saying what they were hoping they were going to say … and I can see their faces, even as I speak to you now. But why people did accept it, God knows?’

(Joe Murphy, political editor, the Standard) ‘There was a strong feeling after the 2002 Texas meeting between Blair and Bush, which I was at, that the decision had been taken in all but announcement, and that Blair had agreed to it … that was the feeling among journalists who were involved in the story, and that was the foreboding sort of feeling among MPs … my impression is the decision was being made, and the WMD, we were being tutored on a reason for the decision’

Many, of the component parts of the critical narrative are partially or entirely correct and now appear supported by substantial documented evidence, official and otherwise. For example, it now seems fairly certain that small circles of advisors around Blair and Bush had too much control over events, by-passed conventional systems of governance, and over-played the intelligence about the Iraqi threat. It is also now clear that there was no significant ‘WMD’ programme in Iraq, not of the scale that could threaten Western powers, and nor was the Hussein regime likely to have had any links to al-Qaeda or the 9/11 attacks. On such a basis all official US and UK reports have been critical of the intelligence findings. It is also undeniable that extensive media and information operations were rolled out to promote the case for war and misleading information was deliberately presented to both sets of parliaments and publics.

However, other parts of the narrative remain in doubt or offer a rather vague explanation of events and decision-making. What did the inner circles actually believe in relation to Iraq and for how long? Why did Blair support the US attack and when exactly was the decision made to invade Iraq? Why did clear majorities from the leading parties in the UK and US, despite concerns and questionable public support, fall into line and give their public backing? Why did the media fail to look sufficiently critically at the arguments being made? Similarly, why did a host of other political administrations from Europe and elsewhere defy public opinion to give political, if not military, support to the attack? Falling back on explanations of mass conspiracy, manipulation and/or mass gullibility to explain all these questions seems a little too simplistic.

Without contradicting the critical narrative, this chapter instead develops an alternative media and communication-based account of events; one that fits in with the cultural embedding/disembedding paradigm described above. In the case of Iraq, a process of disembedding is described, in which each level or network of decision-makers became separated from its lower, larger level. The foreign ‘policy communities’, in which Blair and Bush moved, became disembedded from their wider government and parliamentary (including journalists) social spheres and these, in turn, became disembedded from their wider citizen bases.

The Embedding and Disembedding of Elite Foreign Policy Networks in the UK and US

Elite Foreign Policy Network(s) Become Internally Social Embedded and Disembedded from External National Parliaments and Bureaucracies

The first point argued is that Tony Blair came to inhabit an exclusive, socially-embedded elite foreign policy network well in advance of ‘9/11’, whose participants did believe in the ‘WMD’ threat. Before September the 11th, Blair had already established a close operational alliance with the Whitehouse on international affairs and worked primarily within a selected inner circle of foreign affairs advisors. Through a series of events and working practices he had evolved a philosophy of ‘humanitarian interventionism’ and had developed long term concerns with ‘WMD’, international terrorism and Iraq. Arguably, all these elements then directed his understanding of, and response to, US plans to invade Iraq.

Like Bush, Blair was very much a foreign affairs novice when he came to power in 1997. Like Bush, he increasingly turned away from the domestic policy agenda and towards foreign affairs (see Seldon, 2005, Short, 2005, Dunne, 2008, and in interviews with Gary Gibbon, Clare Short). Partly as a result of his personal leadership style and operational mode of governance, he worked through a select groups of loyal, personally-appointed advisors (Butler, 2004, Dickie, 2004, Seldon, 2005, Short, 2005, Campbell, 2007). This modus operandi and interventionist philosophy became consolidated through peace negotiations in Northern Ireland, the bombing of Iraq in 1998 and intervention in Kosovo in 1999. By the time of the events of September 11th, Blair had his trusted inner circle of eight people, a mix of personal political advisors and defence staff[1]. This group met regularly, and always in advance of the larger, official ‘War Cabinet’. Others, such as Jack Straw (Foreign Secretary), Geoff Hoon (Defence Secretary) and Christopher Meyer (Ambassador to the United States) were in frequent contact. This group also had extensive contact with their equivalents on the US side. Military intelligence and plans were shared. After ‘9/11’ Blair and Bush were, at times, in daily telephone contact, as were other members of his select group with Condoleeza Rice, Colin Powell and others.

In several accounts too, it becomes clear that Blair, and his inner circle’s views on Iraq, international terrorism and ‘WMD’ were forming as far back as 1997 (Meyer, 2005, Seldon, 2005). According to Seldon (2005) and Short (2005) Clinton had then impressed on Blair the problem of Iraq and WMD. In fact, just before the bombing of Iraq in 1998 (‘Operation Desert Fox’), Blair had made a speech and prepared a document for MPs on ‘Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction’. According to Dickie (2004, p104), after ‘9/11’ the JIC daily summary of intelligence became ‘top priority reading’ for Blair. Campbell’s (2007) diary makes many references to Blair’s discussions and concerns on these issues over a lengthy period. In these same accounts, Blair is depicted as being more focused on Iraq than Bush, at least up until April 2003.

The picture that emerges is that, by September 11th and from then onwards, Blair inhabited a very exclusive policy network or ‘epistemic community’ on international affairs. This group had exclusive access to intelligence information from UK intelligence services and US contacts. Policy and decision-making took place within this network. A parallel policy network had clearly evolved in the Whitehouse (see accounts in Woodward, 2004, Clarke, 2004, Mazarr, 2007, Khong, 2008) guided by the long-term ideological position of the neocons or ‘vulcans’ (Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith, Lewis Libby). Both elite networks not only acted as ‘epistemic communities’ they were subject to ‘groupthink’ (Janis, 1982), probably more in the Whitehouse than Downing Street. Both groups were increasingly self-guiding and reinforcing of their beliefs and concerns over several years. Such certainties were relayed down to the various intelligence services who, in the wake of ‘9/11’, were clearly under institutional pressure to uncover any further potential threats, no matter how tenuous the intelligence.

Through all the documented accounts and personal interviews there were clear points of disagreement. The issue of when exactly Blair agreed to join the US attack, regardless of whether his conditions were met, remains disputed. Several accounts say that an early decision was either unlikely or did not take place (Meyer, 2005, Seldon, 2005). Other accounts (Kampfner, 2004, Short, 2005, Dunne, 2008) and interviewees (Adam Boulton, Joe Murphy and Clare Short) suggested it was probably in April 2002. Campbell’s (2007) diaries also give the impression that Blair had made a decision and pursued it throughout 2002. Similarly, it does seem clear now that Blair, Alistair Campbell and his inner circle, very much overplayed and exaggerated the existing WMD threats (HoC, July 2003, Butler, 2004). They then, quite possibly, covered up their role in the producing of those intelligence dossiers (Short, 2005, Oborne, 2007, and several interviewees):

(Andrew MacKinlay MP, member of Foreign Affairs Select Committee 1997-) ‘On a personal level I want to know who and how we were lied to, or misled, and it’s just unacceptable … somebody, somewhere told us that there were weapons of mass destruction that was an immediate threat, and I want to know how such a cock-up came about or if it was deliberately set out to mislead’

However, no-one suggested that Blair and his aides had lied about the WMD argument or the nature of the Iraq regime and its potential to to cause problems beyond its borders. Several interviewees said they had had personal exchanges with Blair and believed him to be genuine in his beliefs. Short (2005) described his actions as being ‘an honourable deception’. Meyer (2005, p282-4) said that, at the time, he – Meyer – and all those connected, believed that WMD did exist, there was no early decision to go to war, and opposes the notion of a Bush and Blair ‘conspiracy’. Seldon (2005, p583-4) also cites several insiders who support each of these points (see also Kearney, 2003, Campbell, 2007). Three official UK enquiries, albeit limited or compromised in various ways (HoC, July 2003, Butler, 2004, Hutton, 2004), conclude that the broader statements in the September 2002 ‘dodgy’ dossier were reasonable, on the basis of existing intelligence, even if misleadingly presented in parts (although the latest 2010 inquiry may find otherwise). Peter Oborne, who has written an entire book on the ‘lies’ of New Labour (2007) said in interview:

‘I knew he [Blair] had a record of not knowing what he was doing, a record of naivety and deceit … I never believe anything a minister ever says, but I mean even I believed there were WMD … my impression that what they [those on the inside] all say, and I don’t disbelieve them, believed in the existence of WMD.’

The US case remains more cloudy in terms of whether the neocon foreign policy network really believed in the WMD and wider Iraqi threat or not. Several accounts (Woodward, 2004, Clarke, 2004, US Senate, 2008) certainly argue that many basic claims put by the Bush administration, such as the al-Qaeda connection and Iraq’s purchase of uranium in Niger, were indeed manufactured and known to be so. It also seems clear that Iraq was a likely target very early on, military plans were well-developed some time in advance, and the neocon network had been ‘fixated’ on the Iraq threat throughout the 1990s. So, like the UK case, it could be argued that the ‘epistemic community’ of neocons did sincerely believe in the Iraqi threat but, also, had decided earlier and engineered an extensive propaganda operation to push the case for invasion.

Just as Blair and his foreign policy network became socially embedded, internally and with its parallel US network, so they became culturally disembedded from the UK Cabinet, civil service and Parliament. As several accounts note, Blair came to bypass traditional FCO channels and Cabinet (when in operation), while also becoming increasingly focused on his regular JIC briefing (Joint Intelligence Committee) and US networks (Butler, 2004, Dickie, 2004, Seldon, 2005, Short, 2005, Oborne, 2007). Blair’s network had exclusive access to intelligence information and contacts. In contrast, those parts of the governance system which could call Blair to account, the Cabinet and senior civil service ranks, were very much excluded, from information inputs and discussions.

Dickie’s (2004) insider account from the FCO makes clear that much intelligence on Iraq bypassed the cabinet and senior civil servants. Butler (2004) found that detailed briefing material was prepared for Cabinet discussion but never actually circulated. Short (2005) argues that most of the Cabinet never saw the majority of the relevant material and that, those select few who did, had limited access. In her accounts (2005, and interview) Blair, in effect, managed the issue and cabinet colleague’s access and discussion, pushed the ‘collective cabinet responsibility’ line, and thus encouraged further ‘groupthink’ behaviour. Many voiced reservations in the September (2002) cabinet meeting; the only one, according to Short in which an open debate took place. However, almost all agreed to support Blair’s policy and took his word about the military threat. As Estelle Morris, a former cabinet minister, recounted ‘I was there for the September Cabinet Meeting … There was a sensible discussion but at that time most people in the room did believe there were weapons of mass destruction, and that, for me, was the key thing. In Clare Short’s recollection:

(Clare Short MP, former Secretary of State for Development) ‘There were no [cabinet] papers … it all fits with what I’m saying about Blair’s policy-making structures, the less information others have the better because then he can control the decision-making … in the big chunk of time, all through the summer when the whole atmosphere’s building up, House of Commons isn’t meeting, Cabinet doesn’t meet, so everyone’s getting their information from the media or whatever they get in their departments … but no Cabinet. And so there would be bits of discussions before … it’s fair amounts of Tony saying “Right Jack, could you just say about your visit to Colin Powell” … then as Blair managed it week in, week out, it sort of becomes clear they’re [Cabinet Ministers] not invited to that table’

Like many Cabinet members, ordinary MPs, be they back-benchers or senior opposition party members, were further separated from the Government in terms of the information made available to them. Those not in specific Cabinet posts in the higher reaches of the Executive had access to the daily briefings produced by the extensive networks of the Foreign Office, Ministry of Defence and Joint Intelligence Services. As Dickie (2004) points out (and also, Richards and Smith, 2002, Meyer, 2005, Short, 2005, chapter eight), the gathering and circulation of intelligence, FCO and Defence material generally was very insular and restricted. External sources of expertise, such as foreign affairs and defence think tanks and journalists, were kept relatively distanced from this.

However, when MPs with a specific interest on such issues, were asked about their information sources, they relied very heavily on the published outputs of those same think tanks and journalists. This included those with a professional interest such as those who were opposition ministers and select committee MPs and clerks covering foreign affairs and defence. Several complained that they never had access to vital documents necessary for evaluating government decisions. In fact, a key complaint of MPs who wanted to investigate government policy here was the lack of access to the actual intelligence reports, most specifically those on Iraq:

(Lord Donald Anderson, Chair Foreign Affairs Committee, 1997-2005) ‘we knew that much of the material would have been denied to us, and therefore we were groping in the dark, to some extent, as much of it would have been intelligence … [we] raised it frequently with the Liaison Committee on shifting the balance, a series of reports on relations with the Executive, and we did a special report to the House complaining about the lack of cooperation on intelligence.’

National Parliaments Become Internally Socially Embedded/Disembedded from External National Publics

At the same time, the Parliamentary sphere became both internally socially embedded and also disembedded from external national publics. Its information inputs, social exchanges and political considerations also differed considerably from ordinary citizens. As stated (chapter eight), MPs have much greater information on, and interest in, international affairs than the general public. Clearly, at the time of the parliamentary vote on support for military action in Iraq (18th March, 2003), MPs had been fairly focused on the issue for much of the previous 12 months. Between February 2002 and the start of the war in March 2003 there were six debates in the House of Commons on Iraq and a further three on closely related matters that included Iraq. In addition, Tony Blair made three statements to the House on Iraq plus two on related matters. Geoff Hoon made another four statements on Iraq, and one related, and Jack Straw three statements on Iraq (all figs. in HoC, 2009). Two select committee reports were circulated and the Commons Library produced several research papers summarising events, arguments and policy choices (e.g., HoC, 2002, March 2003). MPs also received their own party briefings documents, gathered their own ‘intelligence’ and talked with colleagues frequently about the issue.

Several MPs were asked why the majority had backed the vote, when evidence seemed lacking, and in the face of strong public and international unease about the proposed strike. The most frequent answer given was a genuine belief, at the time, in the potential military threat of the Iraqi regime. As several put it, even taking into account the notion that the threat and the intelligence was exaggerated, none believed that Blair and the intelligence would be entirely wrong. The second most common response was that the Hussein regime had a long record of committing human rights atrocities and defying UN resolutions and, officially, the war was to uphold UN resolutions. Several also believed that, as in earlier conflicts (Iraq, 1991, Kosova, 1999), the war would be relatively quick and peace and stability restored fairly easily:

(Michael Ancram, Deputy Leader of Conservative Party, Shadow Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, 2001-05) [we supported the Government] on the information available at the time, a large proportion of which obviously came from the Prime Minister. He felt it was the responsible thing to do … and the intelligence services in countries like Germany, France, Britain and America, all believed that there were weapons of mass destruction, and it would be difficult to stand up and say “I don’t know but I think the intelligence services are wrong”. Take a brave man to do that

The views and responses of MPs were also influenced by a number of internal party-political considerations. Many interviewees indicated that such factors played a large part in MP decisions. By all accounts Labour MPs were subject to some concerted lobbying by Blair, cabinet ministers and the party whips (Seldon, 2005, Short, 2005, Campbell, 2007). The stakes also appeared high for the Parliamentary Labour Party. It was widely propagated that Blair would resign if he did not get at least a Labour majority and a general election could potentially result. For others, it was simply a matter of being loyal to one’s party and voting accordingly. Since it was clear that the Government were likely to win, because of solid Conservative support, so the personal risks of rebellion seemed high. According to some interviewees, those with doubts about Iraq felt they were outweighed by personal political risks of rebellion, especially for those MPs in the government. So ministers, whips and loyalist MPs were further motivated to join the lobbying of doubters:

(Gary Gibbon, Channel 4 News) ‘not only would he [Tony Blair] have had to resign … they [the Labour Government] would have been humiliated internationally, shown to be unfit to govern because they tried to do something. Then they couldn’t do it. It’s the ERM times ten, Suez revisited, it would have been cataclysmic. And in the end that’s what people like Gordon Brown realised and knew they had to come out and put their shoulders to the wheel, whatever they thought in private’

Ultimately, 139 out of 410 Labour MPs rebelled in the largest party revolt against a UK government in the modern parliamentary era. They were joined by the Liberal Democrats. Three ministers, included Robin Cook, the former Foreign Secretary, resigned from the government, as did Elizabeth Wilmshurst the Deputy Legal Advisor in the Foreign Office. Clare Short resigned two months later. However, the Government was supported by the majority of Labour MPs as well as the Conservative Party, and won a clear victory. The Government won the cross-party support of 396 MPs over 217 opposition votes. A belief in WMD and party-political considerations resulted in strong majority support for action.

The Parliamentary sphere was, in turn, disembedded from wider public opinion where opposition was confused but instinctively stronger. From an information source perspective most ordinary citizens had neither the specialist, inside intelligence information nor the detailed House of Commons information supplied to MPs. They were not encumbered by any personal and professional career concerns. They were almost entirely dependent on the mainstream media to inform them. But, in many accounts, the UK and US media proved to be all too vague and unquestioning of government foreign and military policy in the wake of the 11th of September attack (see collections in Greenberg, 2002, Zellizer and Allan, 2002, Stauber and Rampton, 2003, Thussu and Freedman, 2003, Miller, 2004, and Entman, 2004, Kull et al., 2004, Lewis, 2004).

One explanation for this is that, almost immediately in the aftermath of ‘9/11’, government and military sources came to dominate news coverage and continued until after the six week war in Spring 2003 (Greenberg, 2002, Lewis, 2004). Significantly, the major opposition parties of both parliaments (Conservative Party and Democrats) gave strong support to their governments. In effect, despite many public protests from fringe politicians and journalists, mainstream political and media opinion found a consensus. As earlier studies of foreign affairs reporting demonstrate, journalists are unlikely to report disunity, go to outside sources, or act critically of government if there is broad political elite consensus (Bennett, 1990, Hallin, 1994, Entman, 2004). So it was in the period between ‘9/11’ and ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’. Several UK journalists interviewed defended their role at the time, saying they were not sufficiently expert enough to determine the veracity of the claims supporting war and simply reported the views of the leaderships of the main political parties:

(Ben Brogan, Daily Mail) ‘we weren’t experts. We did not know the scale to which the Government perhaps had exaggerated things on the dossier … we were reporters who were reporting what was going on in Parliament, in Government. Our views were not particularly of interest. We were just reflecting what MPs and politicians thought.’

Another reason for the news media’s weakness was the fact that, during this period, the US and UK established the largest propaganda operations since World War Two. The US spent billions of dollars in its promotional efforts while the UK spent hundreds of millions (see also accounts in Brown, 2003, Stauber and Rampton, 2003, Snow, 2004). Large scale communications operations were set up, including the Pentagon’s Office of Strategic Influence, the White House’s Office of Global Communications, and the Civil Contingencies Secretariat in Downing Street. All fed continuous and coordinated information to reporters at different sites while also squeezing reporters. As one Labour MP remarked (Jeremy Corbyn MP) ‘over the Iraq war the pressures put on the media were absolutely extraordinary, by the Ministry of Defence and Downing Street’. In the US, the Bush administration went further, presenting a series of unopposed but misleading statements about the reasons for war. These included the arguments that Iraq had WMD, was linked to al-Qaeda and 9/11, and that World public opinion supported US actions (Kull et al., 2004, US Senate, 2008).

Accordingly, this meant that news reporting rarely questioned the WMD thesis until too late. Lewis’s (2004) survey of UK media content found that news coverage continued to reproduce claims of the ‘possible’ or ‘likely’ existence of WMD in Iraq. 89% of references to the subject ‘assumed their probable existence’. War reporting itself focused almost entirely on fighting and strategy. In fact, 42% of the public surveyed in September 2004 said that there was too little coverage of non-conflict issues. A pro-war bias was more detectable still in the US media (Entman, 2004, Kull et al., 2004). According to Kull et al.’s (2004) revealing study, a majority of viewers of Fox News, CBS, ABC, CNN and NBC television channels believed in one or more of the ‘misperceptions’ disseminated by the Bush regime. Pro-war coverage continued to be ‘overwealmingly more frequent’ than anti-war reporting. In January 2003, 68% of the US public in fact believed that Iraq had had a role in ‘9/11’.

Actual UK and US public opinion polls reflected the confusion propagated by political leaders and transmitted by mainstream media but, when given the facts, was fairly critical of the war. Polls of the time are actually quite variable, confused and contradictory, mainly because the survey questionnaires reflected the doubts and misperceptions of media reporting. Such ambiguities enabled several politicians and journalists to assume, erroneously, that a majority of the US and UK publics supported the attack on Iraq. Interestingly, there was a general perception amongst many interviewees (journalists and politicians) that a majority of the public had indeed supported the war prior to its commencement. Several interviewees mentioned this factor when explaining why they and others supported the Blair government. The February 2002 protest march across London, while being the largest in British history – figures vary between three quarters of a million and two million – was not considered politically significant. Former cabinet ministers played down its importance. Clare Short (interview) said it was never discussed in the Cabinet. As one cabinet member recounted:

‘I think people forget this. All the polls at the time of the invasion of Iraq were for the Prime Minister’s action. Even if two million marched on London, there’s a population of well, over 56 million, and I think if you actually look at the polling data, I think it was in favour of the Prime Minister’s action.’

However, it seems more sensible to conclude that public opinion was actually unsure and uncommitted but, when presented with clear information, was largely at odds with political elite opinion. In the case of the UK, the evidence suggests that public support for action was conditional on WMD existing and UN approval. For example, in January 2003, 61% of the public stated their support for Britain joining the American-led action against Iraq ‘with UN approval’. However, 77% opposed such action ‘without’ it (MORI, Jan 2003). In general, support for Tony Blair, personally, and action in Iraq generally, steadily declined through 2002. By March 2003, only 30% ‘approved’ of his ‘handling’ of Iraq and 54% disapproved (MORI, March 2003). Faith in the UN was rather higher than in either the Blair or Bush administrations. Once war began a majority of the public (56%) came out ‘in support of their troops’ but, some months after the initial invasion, opponents of the war were again in the majority (see Lewis, 2004) and have continued to remain so since.

In the US, approval of George Bush was clearer but support for action in Iraq was also linked to particular conditions. In September 2002, 67% of the public ‘approved’ of Bush’s job performance, although only 52% said he had explained the case for war clearly. By January 2003, 76% favoured military action but this dropped to 28% if no proof of WMD was found. It dropped to 26% if the US acted unilaterally and 21% if significant US casualties were to result. Under such conditions 48% opposed action (Pew, Jan., 2003). By February, following Hans Blix’s report of no further ‘WMD’ being found, 58% said the US did not have enough international support to proceed and a new UN resolution was necessary (Pew, Feb., 2003). Clearly, US public support was dependent on some unmet conditions although, clearly, many falsely believed that some of these conditions had been met (see Kull et al., 2004).

The disembedding of political and foreign policy elite networks from national publics was not just confined to the US and UK nations. Public opinion elsewhere was largely opposed to military action and extremely hostile across most of the Middle East (Berenger, 2004, Hawley, 2004, Pew, March 2004, Schuster and Maier, 2006). Yet many governments supported the action, politically if not militarily. In fact, 15 European nations supported the action in Iraq in spite of public opposition. Just five European governments reflected the will of their citizens in being opposed to the action. Several Middle-Eastern and African nations also supported the action in spite of strong public opposition. Huge protest marches were staged, often in the hundreds of thousands, in many countries. The three largest were in Barcelona (1.3 million), Rome (3 million) and London (1-2 million). However, the UK, Spanish and Italian governments all defied the polls and marches to back the action in Iraq.


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[1] David Manning (Chief Foreign Policy Advisor), Jonathan Powell (Chief of Staff), John Scarlett (Chair of the JIC), Sally Morgan (Director of Political and Government Relations), Michael Boyce Chief of the Defence Staff), Richard Dearlove (Head of MI6), and Alistair Campbell (Chief Press Secretary and PM’s Spokesman).