What did Tony Blair know, and when did he know it?
When I first went down to the Chilcot Inquiry investigating Britain’s involvement in the Iraq War on Wednesday morning most press attention was elsewhere–perhaps on Gordon Brown’s ill-fated Afghanistan summit, where the big news was a plan to buy off the Taliban by offering fighters money and jobs, or (though this seems unlikely), on the even less promising Conference on Yemen and terrorism, which by one of those coincidences in which the gods of irony make their influence manifest, is also taking place here this week. As a result I was able to sit about 10 feet behind the former Attorney General, Peter Goldsmith, as he tried to explain what exactly had shifted him from the firm view, expressed as late as January 2003, that going to war solely on the basis of UN Resolution 1441 would be a violation of international law, to the view in February and March 2003, that the war was completely legal.
Lord Goldsmith attributed his conversion to three factors: a chat with Sir Jeremy Greenstock, London’s man at the UN, discussions with the then-Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, and, intriguingly, his conversations in Washington in February 2003 with William Howard Taft IV, the State Department’s chief legal advisor. This was one of the many moments when one wished that the make-up of the Inquiry had somehow stretched to include a lawyer–or even a half competent journalist. Anyone, really, capable of asking a few follow-up questions.
It was a wish that returned in force this morning, as former Prime Minister Tony Blair faced the first really sustained public questioning of his decision to take Britain to war in Iraq. I’ll file a more considered report on Blair’s testimony later on, but although Blair seemed palpably nervous at the start of his seven hours of questioning–there were reports of his hands shaking as the hearing began–it soon became clear how little Blair had to fear from the panel. He described his own thinking as having undergone a sea change after the attacks on September 11, 2001, which he claimed owed very little to any perceived need to cultivate or curry favor with the new administration of President George W. Bush. Blair likewise denied reports that he’d made any secret promise to President Bush to support a military confrontation with Iraq long before he publicly committed Britain to an invasion.