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.
Since Gordon Brown’s government–or as Sir Roderic Lyne, a veteran diplomat and the only member of the panel who even comes close to cross-examining witnesses, put it, "the government that was elected under your leadership"–yesterday refused to declassify Blair’s correspondence with Bush, there was no evidence available to challenge Blair’s account. But there were a few areas where more aggressive questioning might have paid off:
1. Timing. Lyne came close, asking Blair: "Why Iraq? Why Now?" but never succeeded in getting an answer to the second question. Blair’s response that although Iran and North Korea both arguably posed greater threats to world peace, the combination of Saddam Hussein’s history of flouting UN resolutions, and his record of using chemical weapons against his own people rendered him a better target was plausible enough. But Blair’s further claim that UN weapons inspector Hans Blix’s reports–and the later evidence of the Iraq Survey Group –that Iraq retained both a commitment to developing WMD and the intellectual capability to do so also in effect concedes that in 2003 Iraq posed no immediate threat. So why the rush to invade? Blair denied any Pentagon pressure. The closest he came to an answer was to say that if the Iraqis had been given more months to comply with the UN, and had continued to evade full compliance "by then we would have lost our nerve." But he was never asked whether the risk of lost British nerve was really sufficient to justify hundreds of British deaths, let alone hundreds of thousands of Iraqi deaths.
2. What did he know, and when did he know it? Blair’s letters to Bush may someday tell us a great deal. But in the meantime the Inquiry could have asked to see his correspondence with the late Robin Cook, Straw’s predecessor as Foreign Secretary, who resigned from the cabinet on March 17, 2003, just as the invasion began. As Foreign Secretary Cook until June 2001 had been involved in both the joint British-US action in Kosovo and in Operation Desert Fox; presumably he knew as much as anyone about the state of Saddam Hussein’s WMD program. Did he tell Blair his purported justification for war was based on sexed-up intelligence?
3. Regrets. Offered several chances to state any regrets, Blair declined, though his remark that what he felt was "responsibility, but not regret" prompted some in the otherwise impeccably behaved audience to jeer. Instead time and again Blair changed the subject, blaming the chaos in Iraq not on the US or Britain or their joint failure to plan for after the invasion, but on the unforeseen and malign intervention of Al Queda and Iran. He repeatedly, almost compulsively, returned to the themes of Iranian treachery and Iranian provocation and the many parallels between the threat posed by Saddam Hussein and by the current regime in Iran.
Blair’s obvious fixation with Teheran was what made his testimony more than just warmed-over rationalizations. There are certainly lessons to be drawn, both for Washington and London, from Blair’s evident eagerness to treat Iran as a "do-over" of Iraq. But they probably aren’t the ones he tried to deliver today.