The build-up to Tony Blair's appearance on Friday before the Public Inquiry investigating the Iraq War was dominated, above all else, by two things: a palpable thirst to see the Prime Minister publicly humiliated and a nagging sense that Blair's testimony would be anti-climactic.
Both expectations proved ill-founded. Protesters outside the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Center chanted "Tony Bliar! [sic] War Criminal!" but the old fox showed once again that he's the war's last surviving passionate and convincing salesman. Not only did he defend the decisions that were made; he'd do it all again today. This was vintage, bravura Blair: After six hours of questioning he remained defiant, unabashed, and proud.
The old fox showed once again that he's the war's last surviving passionate and convincing salesman.
Asked if he had any regrets, he refused to give the public-or the media-what they craved: an apology for actions he still believes were right and necessary. "Responsibility, but not regret in terms of removing Saddam Hussein. He was a monster."
If military action had been delayed, he said, there was every prospect that sanctions would collapse and, with oil prices rising to $100 a barrel, Saddam would have retained the desire and intellectual capability to reconstitute his WMD programs. Worse, "we would have lost our nerve" to deal with him.
It's not enough, Blair said, to consider the options available in March 2003. You need "to ask the 2010 question." What, he suggested, would the situation have been in 2010 had Saddam remained in power? "I have little doubt that today we would be facing a situation where Iraq was competing with Iran, competing on a nuclear capability and competing in terms of support for terrorist groups."
The implication was obvious: Even though Britain made Saddam's WMD program the focus of the case for war, the problem was Saddam himself. Even so, as late as October 2002, "I remember specifically a conversation with President Bush in which he said 'If he complies [with the U.N.], that's it.'" This fear—that Saddam might actually comply—was one basis for the reluctance in some parts of the American administration to travel down the U.N. route in the first place.
As for Iran itself, Blair warned that "many of the same arguments apply" today that applied to Iraq back in 2002-2003. The post-9/11 security calculus that made it imperative to deal with Saddam has neither changed nor been rendered obsolete by the Iraq adventure.
Blair's warning on Iran may reflect Britain's experience in Basra where, despite Blair's claims, Britain's armed forces failed in their mission to pacify and restore order in the city. Basra became, instead, a hotbed of Iranian interference. This, Blair claimed, had not been anticipated. Left unanswered was the question of why no one had thought the Iranians might seek to destabilize Iraq. Basra would only be rescued by the U.S.-backed Charge of the Knights and, as COIN expert and U.S. adviser, David Kilcullen noted, “In 2006 the British army was defeated in the field in southern Iraq."
Understandably, Blair preferred not to dwell on this humiliation, insisting that the post-war mistakes were due to the wrong kinds of problems arising on the ground. Preparations were in hand for a humanitarian crisis that never came but not for anything else.
"One of the planning assumptions that everybody made was that there would be a functioning Iraqi civil service. One of the major lessons to be learnt is that when you have these kinds of semi-fascist states that assumption is probably going to be wrong."
Worse, Blair revealed that he had not been consulted in any great depth about U.S. plans for de-Baathification and disbanding the Iraqi army. "It's a decision of such moment it would have been sensible to have had a major discussion. [...] Probably, it's true it would have been better not to have done the de-Baathification and the disbanding of the army in that way."
Next time, he said, "When we go into a nation-building situation in the future we will be far better prepared, far better-educated than we were then." In other words, perhaps alone amongst international statesmen, Blair retains his faith in the merit and necessity of interventionism.
No wonder this horrifies his critics. They insist Blair don a hair shirt and repent his sins. By doing he would not only cleanse himself, but absolve all those who have convinced themselves they opposed the war all along and now pretend that the public was duped into supporting an "illegal" war under false pretenses.
For history has been rewritten to the extent that few people in Britain today are prepared to admit they supported the war in 2003. The impression given by the BBC and other media outlets is that 90 percent of the public were opposed to intervention when, in fact, a majority supported the invasion and liberation of Iraq.
Much, then, has been made of the legal basis for the war and the fact that the Attorney General, the government's senior lawyer, changed his mind on the legal grounds for supporting the war, declaring that Saddam's "material breach" of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1441 did in fact provide a legal basis for British involvement in the war.
But the failure to achieve a second, explicit, U.N. resolution was a political problem, not a legal obstacle. Few of the anti-war movement care to recall that the Kosovan War was, if anything, predicated upon a flimsier legal case than the Iraqi intervention.
Unlike in the U.S., Blair's case for war was limited to defanging Saddam and ending the threat posed by his WMD programs. When those programs were discovered to have been mothballed the public backlash was swift, furious, and, above all, self-righteous.
The insistence, made at the time, that weapons systems, not Saddam himself, were the target was always a weakness, not least since it was hard to see how you could disarm one without dismantling the other. The British case for war rested upon a necessary subterfuge, pretending that a secondary objective (WMD) was in fact the primary target when it was clear that this view was not shared by the Americans.
"This isn't about a lie or a conspiracy or a deceit or a deception," Blair told the panel. "It's a decision. And the decision I had to take was, given Saddam's history, given his use of chemical weapons, given the over one million people whose deaths he had caused, given 10 years of breaking U.N. resolutions, could we take the risk of this man reconstituting his weapons programs or is that a risk that it would be irresponsible to take?"
As he left the chamber, a heckler shouted "You're a liar and a murderer" but Blair paid him no heed. Despite the hatred and the vitriol directed toward him, Tony Blair remains the only member of the war party still capable of mounting a convincing, passionate defense of the conflict. The controversy will never fade and neither will Blair's belief in the righteousness of the cause for which he will always be remembered. Whatever else it may be, this is an act of some political courage.
Alex Massie is a former Washington correspondent for The Scotsman and The Daily Telegraph. He currently writes for The Spectator and blogs at www.spectator.co.uk/alexmassie.