Small-country power: Chile and the Iraq war

Justin Vogler
22 February 2006

Two books by former senior British public officials about the diplomacy surrounding the Iraq war have caused media waves and political embarrassment in recent months. Sir Christopher Meyer, former British ambassador to Washington, depicted the British-American "special relationship" in the run-up to the war in DC Confidential, while Sir Jeremy Greenstock, former British ambassador to the United Nations, focused in The Costs of War on the divisions inside the UN Security Council before the invasion.

With considerably less fanfare, Chile's current ambassador to the UN, Heraldo Muñoz, has published Una Guerra Solitaria (A Solitary War), his own insider account of the drama that unfolded in early 2003 as the United States made frenzied efforts to persuade the fifteen Security Council members (including Chile) to enforce "regime change" in Baghdad.

Justin Vogler works as a freelance journalist in Chile. He writes regularly in Diario Siete and the Santiago Times. His article "Chile, Iraq, and the deceitful British" was published in the Santiago Times on 15 February 2006.

Also by Justin Vogler in openDemocracy:

"Michelle Bachelet's triumph"
(January 2006)

The two books discussed by Justin Vogler are:

Heraldo Muñoz, Una Guerra Solitaria (Random House, Santiago)

Philippe Sands, Lawless World (Penguin, 2nd edition, 2005)

In this crucial period, Chile held one of the pivotal votes in the divided council, where the United States and its British ally were fighting to secure the nine votes needed to authorise invasion. But Santiago refused to be swayed. Washington was denied the "moral victory" of winning the Security Council vote, and the permanent members France and Russia were saved from having to use their vetoes.

It appears that Chile's president, Ricardo Lagos, gave a particularly good account of himself. Muñoz depicts him holding his ground firmly while Washington, London, Madrid and Paris lobbied furiously.

Una Guerra Solitaria provides evidence that a small country like Chile can be an active player in today's international community. Even a modest Latin American republic of 15 million inhabitants was able to act with a high degree of autonomy in the midst of a great power crisis. Moreover, Chile's defiance of Washington was significant for Latin America as a whole, the clearest indication to that point of what has been amply confirmed since: that the traditional relationship between the United States and her "backyard" has changed.

During the build-up to the war, Heraldo Muñoz was presidential spokesman and a key foreign-policy advisor to President Lagos. In June 2003, just after the invasion, Lagos appointed him as Chilean ambassador to the UN. Muñoz was back in Chile for the presidential election that saw Michelle Bachelet elected as Ricardo Lagos's successor on 15 January 2006, and I was able to conduct a lengthy interview with him.

The compromise resolution

As negotiations in the Security Council began to fall apart in March 2003, Chile, in conjunction with other non-permanent members – Mexico, Guinea, Cameroon, Angola and Pakistan – prepared a compromise resolution. This would have allowed three weeks for Iraq to credibly disarm, after which the Security Council would have reconvened.

Muñoz, sitting on a plush sofa in his Santiago apartment, describes a meeting on 14 March 2003 of the "U6" (U for "undecided") coming to an abrupt end when the US ambassador to the UN, John Negroponte, phoned the Mexican delegation. Negroponte said that if the planned proposal went to the council the White House would consider it a "hostile act". Faced with this threat the U6 disintegrated. Lagos nevertheless ignored Washington's bullying and made Chile's proposal public. It took twenty-one minutes for the then White House spokesman Ari Fleischer to reject it as a "non-starter".

Muñoz added with a grin that from Baghdad, Saddam Hussein also denounced the Chilean proposal as a hostile act.

Muñoz suggests that the Bush administration feared that debate on the Chilean resolution could isolate the US in the Security Council. Ricardo Lagos had developed a good working relationship with the British prime minister Tony Blair, and the Chilean proposal had also been developed in close consultation with Downing Street. Muñoz credits Blair with genuinely trying to bring the divided Security Council together. I asked him if the strategy had been for Chile to shield behind an affinity with London while ultimately opposing the war.

"No, my perception is that there was a genuine convergence of views between Blair and Lagos", he replied. "But in the end I think the British prime minister felt that he didn't have much choice but to ally with the United States, his room for manoeuvre was limited. But I do feel that there was common ground. At one point Blair said that the Chilean proposal was very close to Britain's position. And it was."

Diplomatic pressure and free trade

On 11 March, just before Chile tabled her draft resolution, George W Bush rang Lagos to tell him he had eight of the nine votes needed to pass a resolution in the Security Council. Lagos responded curtly that he wouldn't support the war in any case because he believed further diplomacy was possible. The call ended coldly. Lagos later told Muñoz he was sure Bush hadn't secured the eight votes and regretted not calling the American leader's bluff.

Earlier, on 27 February, Lagos had rowed with Jacque Chirac over whether or not the French would use their veto. Muñoz quotes him as saying to the French president: "For me, abstaining from the resolution is the equivalent of voting against the US. But if you abstain, it means you are voting in favour of Bush. The US will applaud you. Obviously the costs are far greater for me than for you. So I would like to know if you will, or will not, use your veto."

Muñoz says that the French were annoyed by Lagos's "tone". However the next day the French foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, confirmed for the first time that France would veto the US-UK resolution.

The then Spanish prime minister, José María Aznar, acting as Bush's emissary, tried to win Chile around. Anyone with a vague idea of Latin American history could have worked out that this was a bad idea. During one call Lagos snapped at his Spanish counterpart that any decision he took would be communicated "directly to Bush and certainly not through Aznar".

Muñoz explained to me that the British lobbying was far more amenable to Santiago. "The British were playing another game: bridge-building. They weren't saying 'sign here', they were saying 'okay, let's see what we can do';, and they would go away and modify their draft resolutions accordingly."

I asked him what kind of pressure had been exerted on Chile in order to sway her vote.

"I can't say that there was actual pressure exerted, but there were great efforts made to convince Chile from all sides … But I don't have any evidence at all that there was actual pressure of the sort 'if you don't vote with us, these are the costs'."

In 2003 Chile was poised to sign a free-trade treaty with Washington after more than ten years of negotiations. One fear for Santiago was that Bush would punish Chile's opposition in the Security Council by ripping up the treaty. But as Muñoz pointed out to me: "Political capital had been invested in the free-trade negotiations, not only on the part of Chile but also on the part of the US."

Santiago calculated correctly that Washington would not scupper her own free-trade agenda. In a separate interview Chile's chief trade negotiator, Osvaldo Rosales, told me how Chile had strengthened its negotiating position by having simultaneously concluded near-identical treaties with the US and the European Union. Chile could play one side off against the other, risking one deal falling through while, as Rosales put it, keeping face by signing the other agreement.

The refusal to back the US-led war helped make Ricardo Lagos one of Chile's most popular presidents ever. Since this display of independence, Lagos – who will pass the presidential sash to Michelle Bachelet on 11 March – has been called "the statesman".

Also on Chile's political arena in openDemocracy:

Tom Burgis, "Arresting development in Chile" (June 2005)

Sergio Aguayo Quezada, "America's protean left: José Miguel Insulza and the OAS" (July 2005)

Roberto Espíndola, "Michelle Bachelet: Chile's next president?" (December 2005)

Roberto Espíndola, "Chile's new era" (January 2006)

The 31 January memo

Two weeks after I interviewed Muñoz, the second edition of Phillipe Sands's book Lawless World: America and the Making and Breaking of Global Rules was published. Sands cites the memo drafted of a meeting held between Bush and Blair on 31 January 2003, which indicates that by then Bush had "unequivocally taken the decision to go to war irrespective of a (UN Security Council) resolution, and irrespective of whether weapons inspectors did, or did not, find weapons of mass destruction."

What most surprised Sands was Blair's reaction as indicated in the memo. Far from objecting, the British prime minister is reported as saying that he was "solidly with the President and ready to do whatever it took to disarm Saddam". Blair regarded a second Security Council resolution as politically desirable as it would provide an "insurance policy against the unexpected". There is no indication that the legality of the action proposed came into Blair's calculations.

It may be that Muñoz's assessment of British diplomacy – and President Lagos's willingness to collaborate with Tony Blair – would have been different if he'd known about this meeting. Certainly Blair's position appears inconsistent with the deference to international law and the commitment to diplomacy that President Lagos had defined as guiding principles for Chilean policy.

Furthermore, if Sands's assessment is correct, it seems reasonable to conclude that the British prime minister did not play straight with Lagos during the preparation of the alternative draft resolution. As Sands told me by telephone: "It's not a million-mile leap to conclude that everything that happened in terms of getting a second resolution was in effect a giant deception; the decision had already been taken."

I went on to ask Sands if it surprised him that a small country like Chile had been able to play such an active role in a "great power crisis".

"It doesn't surprise me", he replied. "I know Chile to be a country with exceptionally able diplomats, and international lawyers. What I think is surprising is that the US and Great Britain, with all their goading, persuading, arm-twisting and threatening couldn't get the second resolution they wanted.

"I think that is an example of the Security Council working – when big powerful countries can't buy off smaller countries. I think countries like Chile got it right, and I think history will show they got it right."

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