Tony Blair moved swiftly to place his relationship with George W Bush on a personal footing after the Republican won the 2000 US presidential election, asking him “early on” in their first telephone call if he could call him by his first name.
“Bush warmly assented (but stuck himself with addressing the prime minister as ‘Sir’),” according to a note of their call, which is among government files released to the National Archives. Blair was the first foreign leader to call to congratulate the president-elect. Michael Tatham, a British diplomat, noted that the eight-minute conversation had established “as good a rapport as one could hope for” from such a short call.
However, the documents also reveal angst on the part of Britain’s New Labour government about how to court Bush amid worries about how the new president would view Blair’s close relationship with Bill Clinton.
By March 2001, two months after Bush’s inauguration, the Downing Street chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, was reporting to Blair about a meeting with Sidney Blumenthal, a senior adviser to Bill Clinton, with Powell stating that Clinton sought “revenge” on Bush.
“This all has some fairly significant consequences for us. We don’t really want to be associated with Clinton in the run-up to an election or in the immediate aftermath,” Powell wrote, adding: “We do not want to irritate Bush but Sidney hinted that Clinton was disappointed that you had not called him while you were in the US. And you do not want to look as if you are walking away from your former friend.”
Handwriting on the note says: “Why don’t I call him soon?”
Other files reveal further evidence of the eagerness on the part of Blair to establish links with Bush’s team. When it emerged that Donald Rumsfeld was to be the new US defence secretary, the prime minister said in a handwritten note: “We must get alongside at a ministerial level quickly.”
Previously secret British assessments of the new Republican administration are also revealed in the files, in the form of reports by Powell and Blair’s foreign policy adviser John Sawers – a future MI6 chief - after they were dispatched to Washington DC in the run-up to Bush’s inauguration in January 2001.
“All of these circles are anglophile and your message about working closely with the new administration was well received,” Powell wrote after two days of talks with senior US figures. “They all said they wanted to keep the relationship special. It will not however be as cosy as with the Clinton administration. Unlike Clinton they will not do political favours for us.”
Sawers added: “Bush’s team are building him up as the new president. They extol his qualities (clear-headed, good decision taker, puts a premium on loyalty and team work, strong at sizing people up quickly and well) and they all refer to him deferentially. Woe betide anyone who belittles him.
“They are especially strong on defence ([Dick] Cheney, Rumsfeld, [Colin] Powell) and unequivocally warm towards Britain. But they have an uncertain touch on Europe. There may be one too many Big Beasts: we can expect some jostling.”
But Blair also showed weariness with his new transatlantic partner, stating in one handwritten aside: “The real anxiety is that the harder edge to the Bush foreign policy passes into arrogance, in outside perception, and from there swiftly to hostility.
“It is reminiscent, a little of the Eurosceptic/Thatcherite line here.”
In other files, Sir Christopher Meyer, Britain’s ambassador to the US, relayed intelligence from meetings with officials in the Bush White House before the invasion of Afghanistan. Meyer told Downing Street in 2001 that the US had “learned the lessons” of the Soviet occupation and there would not be “too many muddy boots on the ground”.
The UK government and the White House also agonised over whether there should be a UN special representative on Afghanistan, according to a confidential memo on the humanitarian situation days before the first US airstrikes.
“They are worried that a senior UN figure might complicate the overall effort, both by intruding on US/UK planning and potentially, by setting him/herself up as the good guy (feeding people), with the US as the bad guys (bombing people),” wrote Anna Wechsberg, who was Blair’s private secretary for foreign affairs.
As preparations for the invasion ramped up, another file shows how a “message to the Afghan people” from Blair before the invasion was altered after consultations with the US to replace the word “evidence” with “information”.
“They are avoiding use of the word evidence; since they are treating any response as a matter of self-defence and do not consider that they should be expected to produce evidence which would stand up in a court of law to justify their actions,” wrote Patrick Davies, private secretary to the foreign secretary.
There are also details of discussion about the possible US use of UK bases to launch strikes on Afghanistan. Seventeen days after the 9/11 attacks, Davies wrote in a letter to David Manning, then the UK’s permanent representative at Nato, that there was a need “to give the Americans a gentle reminder” of the requirement for joint decisions over launching operations from bases including Diego Garcia.
Other released files presage events to come much later. Britain was “all in favour of whacking” Osama bin Laden, Sawers briefed before a meeting with Clinton in December 2000, as the then US president deliberated over whether to hit back at al-Qaida after a suicide attack on an American warship.
The US did not yet have proof that the al-Qaida leader was responsible for the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole in Yemen, wrote Sawers in a briefing for Blair ahead of a dinner with Clinton. “We’re all in favour of whacking UBL [he was also known as Usama], but we need a bit of notice and a chance to influence the timing,” added Sawers.
The memo was written nearly a year before the September 11 attacks, which massively elevated the prominence of Bin Laden and precipitated the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, where the Taliban had provided him with sanctuary.
In the end, the US did not launch strikes on Bin Laden after the bombing, and the Sawers memo stated that that they would not do so until they had a “smoking gun”.