NS Interview - Jack Straw

The man who tried to prevent the Iraq war now goes through contortions to justify it. This is the un

Which is the real Jack Straw? The man who did all he could to avoid war? The man who expressed concerns but bit his lip when the time came? Or the man whose views never differed from those of his boss? The Foreign Secretary has been seen as each of these, a flexibility that has both helped and hindered his cause.

I meet Straw shortly after he has held talks with Iyad Allawi. The Iraqi prime minister was supposed to address the Labour conference, but the tone and timing of his visit were changed for fear of further antagonising a party that is haemorrhaging members and support over the war. Now attempts to play down the issue have been abandoned, with Tony Blair talking of Iraq as the "crucible of global terrorism". I ask Straw if this means we are entering the sixth Blair war. No, he says, this is a counter-insurgency issue. "Whatever opinions people may or may not have had about taking military action, there is a terrorist threat to be dealt with in Iraq. I believe everybody has to be united about that. There is no way we can let these guys win."

Straw maintains that nobody could argue life would be better if Saddam Hussein had stayed in power. Unprompted, he embarks on a detailed chronology of the road to war, arguing that sanctions were not working and the Iraqi regime was not co-operating with UN weapons inspectors. "Not one person around the table said that Iraq was in compliance." So far, so standard. "If we had then walked away, Saddam would have been greatly strengthened, sanctions would have collapsed, the inspectors would have had to go before they had been able to complete their task, he would have carried on his murderous ways inside Iraq and he would have continued sponsoring terrorism in Israel and Palestine."

Straw then goes down a new route. Iraq was not only an evil dictatorship, it was unstable. "Precisely because he [Saddam] had no legitimacy, over a relatively short space of time - notwithstanding his initial strength - the place would have become a haven for terrorists, with a much less benign outcome than is now likely." In other words, we fought this war to prevent Iraq becoming even more of a terrorist hotbed than it is now, even though it was not one at the time? I ask him whether this has become the latest justification for war. Why not, given that it seems to change by the week? Straw says that the reason he cited on the eve of war still applies - a refusal by Saddam to comply with UN resolutions.

This has not been the best of times for defenders of the war. The upsurge in violence and the horrific hostage-takings have coincided with the declaration by the UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, that the military action was illegal, as well as the final verdict of the Iraq Survey Group that it found no sign of illegal stockpiles or efforts to reconstitute Iraq's nuclear weapons programme. "Even though the stocks were not there, there was no doubt about his intention and retention of the technology," Straw says. "We wanted that removed."

I remind him of a previous interview, conducted after he had secured UN Resolution 1441 in November 2002. He had been ebullient then, insisting that war was anything but inevitable. "I don't regard Saddam Hussein staying in place as optimal, but it is no part of this resolution to change the regime," he had told me. Now he says: "I did regard weakening Saddam as optimal. And I worked extremely hard - so did many others in that period - to secure a peaceful resolution." And yet we have long known that the British government was aware throughout 2002 that the US president, George W Bush, was set on war; and now internal memos have been produced confirming it. I know - because I spoke to countless people in the Foreign Office, Downing Street and elsewhere - the extent of the misgivings of Straw and others, culminating in his last-minute note to Blair suggesting that British troops might not be deployed. And yet, publicly, Straw insists that whatever fears might have been expressed were miraculously allayed when Bush agreed to go to the UN.

I suggest to Straw a distinction between the cautious approach of the Foreign Office on the one hand and the hubris of Blair and his coterie on the other. "Thank you for the compliment, which I accept only in part," he says. "You know and I know that here in this building we are sticklers for abiding by international law." I smile. "And so is the Prime Minister, if that is what you're implying." Nevertheless, he cannot be too upset when documents are produced that show him expressing reservations? "I am embarrassed that they're out and I'm also very angry. Because government with a small 'g' can only operate if it is possible for the prime minister and senior colleagues to offer advice in private and for it not to leak." Concerns about "what ifs" were "entirely appropriate given a decision of such magnitude". The issue at the time of the memos was, Straw says: "Was the United States going to take military action without any recourse whatsoever to the United Nations? That was the focus of all our efforts between early March and 12 September 2002."

Particularly fraught was August that year, when David Manning, Blair's foreign policy adviser, made a discreet trip to see Bush and his secretary of state, Colin Powell, and had a one-on-one with the president. Straw reveals to me that he made one final secret dash to Powell on holiday on 17 and 18 August. The two men would talk almost daily on the phone, often crying on each other's shoulders about the neoconservatives' sway with Bush. Still, the Foreign Secretary denies an assertion by James Naughtie in his new book that Powell had described Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney as "crazies". So what exactly does he think of them? "I don't give a running commentary on the American administration. In any case, they are very different from one another. They've got a point of view. You judge a government by the decisions it makes, and you work with it. OK? Next question?"

Blair has made it clear that he will not tolerate bad-mouthing of the Bush team. His people have made it abundantly clear to the cabinet that they do not look kindly on those who seek a more benign historical reckoning of their role in the war. I point out one particular character assassination, brutal even by the standards of the Blairites, in the Telegraph early in September, which described Straw as unreliable and suggested his days in the job are numbered. He stands accused of: attempts to distance himself on Iraq; bouncing Blair into a referendum on the EU constitution; and his new closeness to the Chancellor, Gordon Brown.

Why are the briefings taking place? "You've got to ask those people. I don't pay too much attention to it . . . It's also balls." So has the PM been displeased? "You have to ask him that. The policies I have been pursuing and the policies the Prime Minister has been following have been entirely as one - on this issue [Iraq] and also on the EU referendum." So he did not lobby Blair to move on the referendum, even though the cabinet had not been consulted and Straw appeared to take the credit afterwards? "I think you'll find that does not correspond to reality - at all. There was a decision made as a result of the usual dialectical processes." He concludes the case for the defence: "I have good relations with all members of the cabinet, including Gordon Brown. I always have had. And I've got great admiration for Gordon. But I've always been a strong supporter - still am - of the Prime Minister."

So what does Straw's tenure have to show for itself so far? He describes Britain's foreign policy as "active and engaged", pointing to climate change, Sudan and Africa policy as a whole. "When you talk to African leaders, they see the Prime Minister and the UK as Africa's best friend." On Iran's refusal to comply with nuclear inspections, he says the international community has demonstrated a welcome consensus, although he adds: "I've not seen evidence that they've developed a bomb." The UN, he says, was "at a fork in the road a year ago, where its authority and effectiveness had gradually wound down". It now accepts the need to amend the legal basis for war to go beyond self-defence. "There is a much lower tolerance now of humanitarian crises and crimes against humanity."

Straw accepts that consensus on the Iraq war will not be achieved, dismissing the notion that the government can ever "move on" from the issue. "It's not a trivial issue, it's very serious, and it remains so. But is that going to be the decisive factor in whether people vote for us? In most cases, no." Does he regret anything about the war? "I think about it a lot, and I am satisfied in my own mind that it was the right thing to do. I think the major decisions we got right. Things are difficult today. I can't say how long they will remain difficult. But I profoundly believe that what will emerge will be a representative, democratic Iraq."

As we leave, a press officer is having to field calls from journalists about remarks made by Britain's ambassador to Italy that Bush is the best recruiting sergeant al-Qaeda has ever had. Whatever the public front, another senior figure has let slip what most people at the Foreign Office really think.

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