“Tanned” and “terrified” were words used by the media to describe Tony Blair on Friday as he entered the Iraq Inquiry chamber, apparently twitching like a squirrel high on caffeine. Even one of the most confident orators in the history of British politics could not avoid feeling intimidated by the many pairs of eyes belonging to those who lost loved ones in the Iraq War, glaring at him, holding him responsible.
It was therefore the job of the ‘inquirers’ to hold the former Prime Minister accountable; a job that they arguably failed to do. It was only a matter of minutes before the twitchy squirrel transformed into a relaxed, proud and self-assured lion. No longer the prey, Blair pounced on the inquiry with a determined run of defensive rhetoric, “This isn’t about a lie or a conspiracy or a deceit or a deception. It’s a decision.”
That was the most frequently quoted of Blair’s statements in the next day’s newspapers. A remark that Blair himself will no doubt hope the majority of the British public take as the summary of his evidence. “Ask the 2010 question,” he urged of us, pleadingly.
And then, with unshakeable conviction, he told us what that question was: what would the world be like now if Saddam Hussein hadn’t been removed? As convincing as his argument seems it was clear from his performance that Blair was trying to box in the debate about the Iraq war – making it about judgement, responsibility and even fate. Not reason, morals or motive.
Time and again, Blair referred to 9/11 as a justifiable reason to take a risk on Iraq, “We had taken the decision that Saddam had to be confronted post-September-11th.” A stained and overused trump card if ever there was one. The Inquiry failed to take into account a particular fact here – that there were no proven links between Al-Qa’ida and Saddam.
An opportunity was therefore missed to probe Blair further on the motives of the war. While the removal of Saddam was no doubt a good thing, it is no more moral and no less illegal than removing Robert Mugabe from office in Zimbabwe. However, Blair left enough hints concerning his motive in the 6 hours of questioning he withstood. There were always going to be cracks of admission, “[After September 11th] the mindset in the United States in relation to Iraq changed dramatically… and mine did too.”
Blair ‘s foreign policy mindset was therefore inseparable from that of George W. Bush’s. It didn’t matter that the leap from 9/11 to Iraq was an irrational one. Blair clearly felt it was more important than anything to maintain a close alliance with the US.
He gave further evidence of this belief in front of the Inquiry as he declared, “I never regarded 11 September as an attack on America, I regarded it as an attack on us.”
Blair’s decision to go to war on Iraq was undoubtedly one motivated by the prospect of solidarity with the world’s global superpower. While Vietnam was a case of the UK avoiding the United States’ worst foreign policy blunder in recent history, Iraq was the opposite. But politics tends to be, even on an international level, all about backing the winner.
Perhaps that’s why Blair has no regrets. Perhaps a Conservative Prime minister would have done exactly the same thing. Either way, the most startling aspect of Blair’s evidence was his unrelenting sense of pride and satisfaction. “I’d do it again,” he said unflinchingly. In fact, the only apology he made was for the division that the Iraq war caused. He then went on to point an accusing finger at Iran (hypocritically fuelling more division perhaps?).
Those who lost loved ones in the Iraq war will probably have come away far from subdued by Blair’s appearance at the Inquiry, or indeed with their anger intensified.
Out of all the journalism published this week, Robert Fisk encapsulated this and put the reality in perspective: “There was the blood that flowed over my shoes in the emergency room of a Baghdad hospital in March of 2003, the humans shrieking with phosphorous burns, the old man with the blood trickling down a handkerchief from his empty eye socket, the piles of decomposing corpses in the Baghdad mortuary, the screams – oh yes, the shrieks and the pleadings and the animal squeals of the wounded and the dying. And then there was Lord Blair yesterday, sitting in the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre in his oh-so-clean business suit and his oh-so-clean red tie and his oh-so-clean white shirt and his oh-so-clean conscience.”
One wonders if Blair would admit any regret after reading that.