George Joffe tells MEE that his warnings meant nothing to Blair, who had an 'extremely limited understanding of international affairs'
A British academic who advised Tony Blair in the run-up to the Iraq war has said the former prime minister acted with “complete ignorance” by ignoring warnings over the chaos the invasion would trigger.
In an interview with Middle East Eye days before the publication of the long-awaited Chilcot report, George Joffe, a professor and prominent Iraq expert at Cambridge University, said he had warned Blair that “simply removing Saddam” would not bring peace and prosperity to Iraq and that the situation was far more complex.
Joffe, who has travelled frequently to Iraq, was one of six experts brought together in November 2002 by Sir Lawrence Freedman, an adviser to Blair.
The men were summoned to the Cabinet Room in 10 Downing Street to outline the worst that could happen if Britain and the US launched an invasion. The meeting could have changed history, by heralding better planning for the aftermath of the invasion and saving countless lives, but Joffe said the men made no “visible impact” on Blair.
“In the room was Blair, Jack Straw and other advisers including Jonathan Powell. Nobody made any comment on anything except Blair and we have been told we could not discuss the legality of the war, only the aftermath,” he told Middle East Eye.
He said: “I made a five-minute presentation emphasising to Blair that no individual actor was all-powerful in Iraq and that Saddam was a captive of the structure of the regime so constrained to what he could and couldn’t do.
"I told him this needed to be taken into account as Iraq was an extremely complicated state and simply removing Saddam would not solve the problem.”
Joffe said Blair "listened carefully” before responding that Saddam was “an evil man” who needed to be removed.
“I thought this was a particularly irrelevant comment,” Joffe said. “At this point we realised it [our advice] meant nothing to him and he had an extremely limited understanding of international affairs. He wanted simplicity.”
Also present at the meeting was Dr Toby Dodge, then of Queen Mary University. Dodge, who has since given evidence to the Chilcot inquiry, warned of disaster and told Blair the Iraqis would fight for their country.
“They were expecting a short, sharp, easy campaign and that the Iraqis would be grateful,” he told the Independent on Sunday newspaper in January 2015. “My aim was to tell them as much as I could, so that there would be no excuses and nobody saying, ‘I didn’t know’”.
Professor Joffe said that as the discussion went on the other academics in the room “fell silent as they realised there was no point” in arguing with the former prime minister.
He said: “Right at the end I said that Iraq would mean nothing unless he did something about the Palestinian situation. He looked at me with slight irritation and said, yes, we must do something for the Palestinians.”
Also present was Sir Lawrence Freedman, another grand British historian, with less than neutral past views on Iraq. Sir Lawrence contributed heavily to a famous speech Blair made in Chicago in 1999, which set out the arguments for military action against repressive and dangerous governments.
Sir Lawrence, who repeatedly wrote hawkish articles on the strategic threat posed by Saddam Hussein, is now a member of the Iraq Inquiry panel. He declined to speak to MEE and said he will remain silent after the release of the report later this week. “[The] report has to speak for itself,” he said.
The Chilcot inquiry, officially known as the Iraq Inquiry, was set up by Gordon Brown, Blair's successor, in June 2009 to “learn the lessons” of the Iraq war.
At the beginning of the investigation Sir John Chilcot promised to get to the “heart of what happened” and said he would not avoid making direct criticism of individuals if it was justified.
Speaking to MEE days before the report gets published, Joffe said that his sources in the Foreign Office had told him they did not expect “fireworks” from the report, but that it would “condemn Blair roundly”.
“They also say the families will be displeased though,” he said.
There has been intense speculation over how much Sir John will focus on the period through 2002 when the UK government had insisted the issue of Saddam and disarmament could be resolved diplomatically.
Critics of the intervention in Iraq have pointed out that at this time the US Defense Department were deep into preparations for war, while the Ministry of Defence in London avoided becoming involved in the logistics of organising an invasion force.
The former defence secretary, Geoff Hoon, alleges that Blair refused to allow active preparation for war to encourage the diplomatic process. MEE contacted the office of Tony Blair for comment but did not receive a reply.
Joffe added that it was “singularly unhelpful” that in the run-up to the conflict the British and American governments had no communication with Iraqi officials.
“I had contact." He said that he had contacted the British Foreign Office when Iraqi officials told him they wanted to negotiate but received no response.
“We had no contact with the Iraqis while all the other major European nations had effectively full embassies in the country. It was a bit of a mess.”
Joffe admits the meeting will play a “marginal role” in Chilcot’s deliberations but says he wrote to the inquiry with details of the meeting, which he said showed the “frame of mind” in government before the invasion.
“It shows the decision-making process and shows the ignorance of government departments over the situation in Iraq. It shows the way in which government acts in complete ignorance of the advice it is given.”
This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.