LONDON - Tony Blair could have delayed the 2003 invasion of Iraq and ensured better plans were in place for its chaotic aftermath by taking a tougher stance with President George W. Bush, Britain's ex-ambassador to Washington said.
Christopher Meyer, Blair's U.S. envoy from 1997-2003, told a panel investigating the Iraq war that Blair failed to use his influence with Bush to stall the frantic rush to invasion.
"We could have achieved more by playing a tougher role," Meyer testified to the five-person inquiry Thursday.
Meyer said U.N. inspections to determine whether Iraq harboured weapons of mass destruction were meaningless, because by late 2002, war was inevitable. Iraq's alleged possession of such weapons was a key justification for the war - even though no weapons were ever found.
"You had to short-circuit the inspection process by finding the notorious smoking gun," Meyer said. "We - the Americans, the British - have never really recovered from that, because of course there was no smoking gun."
Blair should have withheld British co-operation in a military offensive until detailed plans were drafted for action after Saddam Hussein was toppled, Meyer said. Blair could also have demanded Bush address the Arab-Israeli conflict, he said.
"There could have been a very different outcome, but that did not happen," Meyer testified. Hardball tactics from Blair "wouldn't have led to a rupture, but it would have changed the nature of American planning."
The inquiry, the most sweeping review of the conflict so far, was in its third day of hearing evidence in public. It is examining a period from the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States to the withdrawal of U.K. troops from Iraq in May.
Meyer said Blair's timidity meant he couldn't use his support for the war to win concessions from Bush on steel import tariffs.
"If I can put it charitably, we underestimated the leverage we had at our disposal," he told the panel.
Blair has long been derided as Bush's "poodle," over his supposed subservience to the U.S leader.
Meyer said ex-British leader Margaret Thatcher - nicknamed "The Iron Lady" during her 11-years in office - would have been more capable of challenging Bush.
"She would have insisted on a clear, diplomatic strategy and I think she would have demanded the greatest clarity about what the heck would happen if and when we removed Saddam Hussein," he said.
The envoy said Washington's dash to invade was accelerated, in part, by the misguided belief Saddam had links to al-Qaida and the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
Meyer said U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice raised Iraq in a telephone call on Sept. 11, only hours after the attacks.
"She said there's no doubt this was an al-Qaida operation, we are just looking to see if there could possibly be any connection with Saddam Hussein," he told the panel.
The comments suggest the U.S. quickly tied the attacks with Saddam's regime. Years later, Bush's administration was forced to acknowledge they could find no connection.
Bush's White House also fretted during anthrax mailings that killed five people in late 2001. "The last person who had ever used anthrax was Saddam Hussein. Anthrax letters going round the country really spooked people," Meyer said.
By the time of a key meeting at Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas, in April 2002 attitudes had hardened on Iraq, Meyer said. War critics claim Blair secretly pledged to back the invasion of Iraq at the meeting - a year before Parliament approved Britain's involvement.
Bush and Blair spent a "large chunk of time" without advisers present, Meyer said.
"I'm not entirely sure to this day what degree of convergence was, if you like, signed in blood at the Crawford ranch," he said.