It was January 31, 2003. George W. Bush was moving toward war in Iraq, and he was meeting with British Prime Minister Tony Blair in the Oval Office to discuss various war-related matters. Last week, The New York Times disclosed portions of a secret memo–written by Blair’s senior foreign policy adviser, David Manning–that summarized what the two leaders covered at this session, which Manning also attended. Blair, according to the memo, wanted Bush to fight for a United Nations Security Council resolution authorizing military action against Saddam Hussein. Bush agreed to try for such a resolution, but he told Blair that the start date for the war, win or lose at the UN, would be March 10. Bush also proposed provoking a confrontation with Saddam’s regime that would justify attacking Iraq. The pair chatted about postwar Iraq, agreeing that sectarian violence was unlikely.
And according to a previously undisclosed portion of this memo–a passage obtained by The Nation–Bush and Blair discussed what to do about Russian President Vladimir Putin, who was opposed to a war in Iraq. Bush told Blair he had come up with a possible solution: send Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to lecture Putin on free-market economics.
In the weeks prior to the Bush-Blair meeting, Putin had been calling for a diplomatic resolution regarding Iraq. And Russia mattered. Moscow could veto a second resolution in the Security Council–which the previous November had passed a resolution that had demanded that Saddam disarm and that had revived weapons inspections in Iraq.
With Bush aiming to invade Iraq in six weeks, Putin was far from ready to sign on to a war on Iraq. On January 27, Putin spoke with Blair on the telephone and told the British prime minister that weapons inspections should continue, and Russian foreign minister Igor Ivanov said that day that there was “practically no chance” that the UN Security Council would support the use of force. On January 28, Putin publicly insisted that the Iraq problem be resolved through the United Nations and not by U.S. military action. Two days later, he called for “international and diplomatic efforts” to deal with Iraq. And Ivanov dismissed one of the Bush administration’s chief rationales for invading Iraq: “For the time being, neither Russia nor any other country has information about ties between Iraq and al Qaeda.”
How could Bush get Putin on board–or at least persuade him not to veto a Security Council resolution authorizing an invasion of Iraq? Berlusconi was Bush’s answer, according to the Manning memo.