Tony Blair is back on his meds. The last time the former Prime Minister appeared in front of the Iraq Inquiry, the display of physical tics, sweaty brow, verbal evasions and evident nervousness made him look about two steel balls short of the full Queeg.
That was just about a year ago, and although Blair managed to successfully dodge all of the panel’s questions, his flub of a last-minute softball was obviously still on his mind. At the close of proceedings last January, the Inquiry chairman, Sir John Chilcot, asked Blair whether he had any regrets. Blair replied that he was sorry the war had been divisive, but he’d do it all again. As the hearing room, filled with relatives of slain and wounded British soldiers, gasped audibly, Chilcot repeated the question, only to have Blair reply, "Responsibility but not a regret for removing Saddam Hussein. I think he was a monster, I think he threatened not just a region but the world."
This time Blair seemed determined to make amends. His statement that "of course I regret deeply and profoundly the loss of life"—brought many in the hearing room, again filled with relatives of the fallen, to tears, but also prompted a shout of "too late!" from Rose Gentle, whose 19-year-old son, Gordon, was killed in Basra in 2004.
But if Blair managed to express some regret—and, apart from some rogue hand gestures, also did a better job of keeping his body under control—he also offered little more than a reprise of his earlier performance, including the slightly compulsive way he kept using the security collapse in Iraq to justify greater belligerence towards Iran. "The West," said Blair, has to get out of "a wretched posture of apology" towards the Islamic world. What had changed after September 11, 2001, he repeated, was the plausibility of the view that extremism could be "managed." Rather "it needs to be confronted and changed.
The difference—and the reason Blair was hauled back in front of the Inquiry—is that we now have a far better picture of the road to war than was available last time, and the facts available do not entirely support Blair’s version of events. Written evidence released today shows that Blair was seeking "regime change" far earlier than he’s previously acknowledged—and at a time when he assured both Parliament and the British public he was straining every sinew to avoid a military solution. Former Attorney General Peter Goldsmith’s testimony, though unilluminating on what exactly got him to change his mind and declare an illegal war suddenly legal, was clearly inconsistent with Blair’s account of constant, informal consultation. There was a moment of inadvertent frankness, however, when Blair, asked if he "felt constrained by the advice the Attorney General continued to give you" that without a second UN resolution an invasion of Iraq would be illegal, answered simply (and no doubt truthfully), "No."
And though Blair declined to release the text of his communications with George W. Bush—and the current government refused three separate written requests by Sir John Chilcot to make the documents, which they have been allowed to see, available to the public—Blair’s summary of his June 2002 message to Donald Rumsfeld made the point eloquently enough: "Whatever the political heat, if I think this is the right thing to do I’m going to be with you."
It has often been said, and with considerable justice, that the Iraq Inquiry panel is far too deferential in the way it treats its witnesses. Of the four members of the panel, only Sir Roderic Lyne, a veteran career diplomat, ever comes close to asking a probing question—and even he seems hampered by an overwhelming fear of appearing impolite. (Though for connoisseurs of the inquiry his remark today that "what is not clear is at what point you were actually asking the cabinet to take decisions" is a masterpiece of understated disdain.)
However it was Sir Martin Gilbert, a distinguished historian but no one’s idea of a grand inquisitor, who asked the $64,000 question: "Can you tell us at what point you took the decision to join the United States is using force?" He could, but he wouldn’t. However, if the tone of the questions is any indication, the Inquiry may have already arrived at an answer—and the indications are that history is not going to be very kind to Tony Blair.