The heart of the matter. Christopher Meyer, British ambassador to Washington during the run-up to the Iraq invasion, reveals for the first time his insider's view on why Bush and Blair went to war, and whether they were right to defy the United Nations an

Plan of Attack

Bob Woodward <em>Simon & Schuster, 467pp, £18.99</em>

ISBN 0007142471

Predictions of Mesopotamian disaster for America and Britain have helped release a flood of books on why and how George Bush and Tony Blair went to war last year. None has offered an entirely satisfactory explanation. Woodward fills in many of the gaps on the American side with a series of striking revelations. The British equivalent will probably have to observe the 30-year rule before it sees the light of day.

Competing views on the genesis of the war abound. Paul O'Neill, the US former treasury secretary, thinks that war was preordained from the earliest days of the Bush administration. In a long article last month, Vanity Fair claimed that Bush and Blair decided a few days following 9/11 to attack Iraq after Afghanis-tan. Others point to various meetings between Bush and Blair in 2002 as the moment of decision. In his engrossing book Plan of Attack, Woodward presents apparently contradictory evidence: secretive and very early contingency planning instigated by Bush in late 2001; but no final decision to go to war until early 2003.

I was in favour of the war. I believed, and still do, that it was right for the UN to give Saddam Hussein a final chance to comply with the numerous obligations placed on Iraq after the first Gulf war in 1991 - or face the consequences. The alternative was to repeat the fatal feebleness of the League of Nations. The fog of controversy has since obscured the fact that as late as November 2002 this was the unanimous view of the UN Security Council, including France, Russia and Syria. The consensus fractured afterwards on the nature and timing of the consequences. But no one disputed four months before the war began that Iraq was in breach of obligations arising from the 1991 ceasefire.

It was a great pity that the US-led coalition in the first Gulf war failed to destroy Saddam Hussein's military power base, the Republican Guard; a pity also that the Security Council failed to bring Saddam to account after he forced the UN weapons inspectors in effect to quit Iraq in 1998.

People forget that the big worry from then on was the fraying of UN sanctions: the smuggling of God-knows-what into Iraq; the illegal exports of Iraqi oil; the perversion of the oil-for-food programme, the full extent of which has yet to be revealed. There was universal concern at the opportunity this could afford Saddam to reconstitute his chemical, biological and nuclear capabilities. It was Robin Cook's Foreign Office that published in 1998 a pretty hair-raising dossier on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

Tony Blair has the merit of consistency, whether or not you agree with him. He was already sounding warnings in early 1998 about Saddam and invoking the possible use of force. This was always the most effective riposte to the "poodle" charge. Blair needed no convincing that Saddam was a menace to be confronted.

In a speech delivered in Texas in April 2002, just after spending a couple of nights at Bush's ranch, Blair again made the case for dealing with Saddam. The speech did not get the attention it deserved. That was a pity, because for the first time the Prime Minister explained how 9/11 had affected his thinking on Iraq. The lesson, he said, was that you did not wait for a threat to develop before you dealt with it. Saddam had to be tackled one way or another. Doing nothing was no longer an option. This clear line of argument - Blair's own doctrine of pre-emption - had little in common with later assertions about the imminence of a threat by Saddam.

The conflation of the Iraq war with the campaign against al-Qaeda is the heart of the matter. Some, such as Richard Clarke, the former White House head of counter-terrorism, see the Iraq war as a foolhardy diversion of focus and resources from the priority of countering terrorism. Others see it as a 20th-century relic, the second half of the Gulf war 12 years previously. For Bush and Blair, it is an article of faith that Saddam and Osama Bin Laden are threats cut from the same cloth.

Nine days after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, in a speech before a joint session of Congress at which Blair was the honoured guest, Bush defined the enemy as international terrorism and states which supported it. By the time of the "axis of evil" speech, four months later, the enemy had expanded to embrace a nexus comprising international terrorists, states that harboured them, and so-called rogue states with WMDs. The new Bush doctrine put Iraq squarely in the last category. Woodward confirms how little debate there was inside the US administration that this was the right way to view Iraq.

The failure to find weapons of mass destruction and to establish a link between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda has undermined the doctrine and handed a powerful argument to critics of the war. Yet, as far as WMDs were concerned, it was never strictly necessary to find stocks of the stuff, or to assert the imminence of the threat, to uphold the UN's compelling indictment of Iraq in Resolution 1441 of 8 November 2002. David Kay's Iraq Survey Group, while failing to find any WMDs, confirmed Saddam's elaborate deception mechanisms and continuing violation of UN resolutions. With hindsight, a major strategic error, which continues cruelly to torment the US and British governments, was to allow the burden of proof to be shifted, in the last weeks before war, from Saddam and his obligation to demonstrate his innocence - the essence of Resolution 1441 - to the US/UK and their need to show that he was guilty. The ill-starred British dossiers and Secretary Powell's presentation to the UN in February 2003 played their part in this.

But by the end of 2002 the pips were starting to squeak. The contingency plan for war was based on a spring campaign. There was no way that Hans Blix and his Unmovic weapons inspectors could finish their work by then. So it became imperative to find a "smoking gun" that would foreshorten the inspections process. None was ever found. In Powell's presentation, the US gave its best shot. It proved not good enough, as Powell himself now concedes.

Bush comes out well from Plan of Attack. This is hardly surprising, given the time he spent with Woodward. It has aroused the usual suspicions among his many envious Beltway critics that Woodward has once again stooped to the role of court chronicler. But, on the whole, Woodward lets the main voices - Bush, Powell, Donald Rumsfeld and others - give their version of events, leaving readers to make their own judgement. Washington Kremlinologists have delighted in Woodward's narrative and the vivid depictions of the running tension between Colin Powell on the one hand and Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld on the other.

I always thought that, though a natural conservative, Bush could not be easily pigeonholed politically: for example, as a neoconservative, itself shorthand for a number of factions on the Republican right. There was a view in Washington that to understand the president you had to understand that there was a permanent struggle between his head and his heart: the former judicious and cautious, the latter emotional and impatient. I witnessed on two private occasions the strong emotions aroused in him by the thought of sending soldiers into battle. Woodward's narrative brings out sharply how the vision of taking democracy and freedom, as Bush saw them, to the Middle East had seized his imagination.

Bush, like Blair, was a true believer. He was not among those who saw 11 September 2001 as perfect cover for the final, long-cherished grudge match against Saddam. He was transformed by the cataclysmic shock of 9/11 into seeing Iraq as an intolerable threat to the security of the US. Europeans still do not grasp the shattering impact of 9/11 on a president and nation unused to and unprepared for the violence of foreign terrorism. The nightmare for the White House was not just another terrorist onslaught on mainland America, but one in which Saddam had played a role. However fanciful this may seem now, it was, in the shadow of 9/11, a risk that Bush felt he could not take.

"Regime change" - anathema to British government lawyers - had already been official US policy since 1998 under President Clinton. Many of Bush's senior advisers had been gunning for Saddam for years, if not decades. They were encouraged in this by Ahmad Chalabi, the London-based Iraqi businessman and head of the exiled Iraqi National Congress, on whose judgements, as we now know, they leaned too heavily. Regime change was being discussed inside the US administration well before 9/11. But, as Woodward confirms, there was no agreement on how to do it. None of this came into focus until after 9/11. Before then the emphasis of UK/US exchanges, including between Bush and Blair, had been on making sanctions more effective. At their dinner in the White House on 20 September 2001, Iraq was mentioned only to be set aside for discussion at a later date.

I never doubted the sincerity of Bush and Blair when each said that a peaceful solution of the Iraq crisis was possible and desirable, and that war was the last option. Equally, I had little doubt that Bush and Blair thought it would come to war. Neither had any confidence in Saddam's complying with his UN obligations: who did? This is not the same thing as saying that war was inevitable, still less that the two leaders engaged in duplicity to conceal their true intentions.

Woodward is interesting on the balance Bush sought to bring to the diplomatic and military tracks. His chief of staff, Andrew Card, talks about Bush riding two horses. There is a detailed account, obviously from Powell, about negotiations with the French on what became Resolution 1441. What is missing from this is that, between early September and early November, when the resolution was finally passed, the British fought a sometimes bruising battle in Washington, DC and New York to reach agreement with the Americans on the right terms for the return of the weapons inspectors, under Hans Blix. This included overcoming a whole series of objections, notably from the vice-president's office. Eight weeks' hard pounding showed that the UN track was taken with the utmost seriousness in Washington. This was not Potemkin diplomacy.

Would anything have stopped the war? It seemed to me well-nigh inevitable from early December 2002, when Iraq made its inadequate declaration on WMDs. Had Saddam been cleverer, and placed less trust in the power of France and Russia to stop war, he would have produced a more convincing and transparent declaration and given Hans Blix no grounds for complaint. In those circumstances I do not see how America and Britain could have gone to war, however advanced the state of military mobilisation.

Opponents of the war are reluctant to admit that the weapons inspectors would never have been readmitted by Iraq without the US military threat. Blix himself has acknowledged that such co-operation as he received from Iraq was due to the US and British military presence in the Gulf. But that force could not have been left twiddling its thumbs for months, which is what would have happened if the spring campaign season had been missed.

An interesting question is how differently things would have worked out if the military plan had been based on an autumn 2003 campaign, the next period of cooler weather. The Americans briefly flirted with this possibility. It might have permitted the synchronisation of diplomatic and military timetables. It might have ratcheted up the pressure on Saddam sufficiently to lead to his overthrow, which, as Condoleezza Rice, the president's national security adviser, once said to me, was the preferred American option. It would have given Blix a respectable period in which to do his job. If it had still come to war, there might have been greater support within the Security Council, something of inestimable value for the rebuilding of Iraq. The case for using the UN was always stronger in relation to the post-Saddam phase than to the war itself.

Who knows? In any case, the counter-arguments prevailed: too close to the 2004 presidential election campaign; too great a risk of being sucked into an interminable inspections process, manipulated once again by Saddam Hussein; pressure from Jordan and Saudi Arabia, the indispensable ally, to get on with it.

Tony Blair gets a lot of stick in the UK for not using his close relationship with Bush to greater British advantage. Woodward rightly shows Bush pretty attentive to Blair's concerns, and Blair more influential than his critics grant. Given where Blair was coming from to begin with, and his pledge after 9/11 to stand with America however the cards fell, it is not clear that he could have done a lot more. The government should certainly have been far more robust on steel tariffs (imposed just as several thousand Royal Marines were deploying to Afghanistan), transatlantic air services and reconstruction contracts in Iraq. The scope for getting the Americans to be more active on the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians was very limited. The received wisdom at the White House was that the path to peace in the Middle East lay through bringing democracy to Baghdad. We in the Washington embassy had warned that there was no chance of the White House putting serious pressure on the Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon.

It is regrettable also that Britain failed to have a greater impact on the planning before the war for the post-Saddam era. Woodward gives a good account of how the reconstruction of Iraq was handed to the Pentagon. I am told (this was after my time in Washington) that the latter turned its back on a year's planning by the State Department and was unreceptive to British ideas. Coalition troops are still suffering from the mistakes made and the time lost as a result. The Pentagon is not good at remembering that war is the continuation of politics by other means.

But we are where we are. There may have been occasions in the past two and a half years when the British government should have been more assertive with Washington, including in public. But now is precisely not the moment for public disagreement. Britain and America are engaged in a perilous enterprise, with lives at stake, and the outcome is uncertain. Success depends on many things, including holding our collective nerve. Contrary to the views of my 52 erstwhile diplomatic colleagues, among them a few former bosses, I can think of nothing more calculated to doom this enterprise to failure than a public falling-out between the two old allies.