The Chilcot report into Britain’s part in the 2003 Iraq war, which was finally published on Wednesday, is three times the size of the Bible. The executive summary alone runs to 150 pages. It took seven years to write, comprises 2.6 million words, comes in 12 volumes, and costs more than £750 to buy. And buried deep inside it is one particularly damming line. It’s clause 589, and it reads:
“The explanation for military action put forward by Mr Blair in October 2004 was not the one given before the conflict.”
Just think about that. After Britain had joined the U.S. in a conflict that would cost half a million lives, Tony Blair changed his mind about why he had done it.
Back in early 2003, before the war, Blair was clear: we were going to war because Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction (WMD) which, in the post 9/11 world, were a direct threat to Britain. Yet by 2004 it was obvious that Iraq had no WMD. The Iraq Survey Group concluded that Saddam had destroyed them 10 years earlier.
At that stage, an honorable man in Blair’s position, realizing that he had made a decision on the basis of intelligence that had been proved wrong, and that, as a consequence, so many lives had been lost, might have done the decent thing and resigned. Instead, Blair merely changed the reason for going to war. We had done it, we were now told, because Saddam had the potential for manufacturing and using WMD.
Actually, it is unlikely that either the 2003 or 2004 reasons were genuine. Saddam Hussein had no involvement in 9/11, so it was a big leap for Blair to claim that he was more of a threat to Britain and its allies after that terrible day than before. Certainly, Blair has never come up with a convincing connection between 9/11 and the need to topple Saddam. Even now, having had 15 years to think about it, the best that he can give us is this curious and confusing explanation: “…after 9/11 the calculus of risk had changed fundamentally. We believed we had to change policy on nations developing such weapons in order to eliminate the possibility of WMD and terrorism coming together.”
Even if Blair was convinced in 2003 that WMDs Saddam possessed could somehow get into the hands of Al-Qaeda, he was cavalier in examining the evidence presented to him about whether Saddam actually had any. Chilcot points out, for example, that the intelligence reports Tony Blair received before the war “were not challenged and they should have been.” Or at least they weren’t challenged by Blair. But others were deeply skeptical. Blair’s former foreign secretary, Robin Cook, still at that point one of his most senior ministers, resigned over the matter, declaring: “Iraq probably has no weapons of mass destruction in the commonly understood sense of the term.” Meanwhile, UN weapons inspectors, led by Hans Blix, were carrying out 700 inspections in Iraq, and in no case found WMD.
Yet Blair himself remained a believer.
Why didn’t Blair challenge these intelligence reports, even though Cook had considered them misleading enough to warrant his resignation, and the UN inspectors were drawing a blank? Why didn’t he demand greater proof, knowing that he was about to send British soldiers into a bloody conflict based on what the intelligence reports were telling him?
The conclusion that many people will draw is that the intelligence reports purporting to show Saddam’s WMD were merely a convenient excuse, and that Blair’s real reason for war was entirely different.
We can be fairly sure what that real reason was: he considered it to be in Britain’s strategic interests to offer the U.S. unequivocal support for whatever action it chose to take. And if America, for reasons of its own, chose to remove Saddam by force, then Britain would help it do so.
In fact, the very first words of the memo Blair sent to George Bush about Iraq on July 28, 2002, a full nine months before the war, were: “I will be with you, whatever.” And over the last 15 years Blair has always said that preserving Britain’s alliance with America was a fundamentally important part of his foreign policy – he was determined to be by America’s side, shoulder to shoulder. As he said on Wednesday, in response to Chilcot: “I believe there are two essential pillars to British foreign policy, our alliance with the United States and our partnership in Europe, and we should keep both strong as a vital national interest.”
Most British people would agree that a strong relationship with America is essential. Yet, as Blair knew, most would also consider that alone too flimsy a pretext for going to war. Hence the need to insist that Saddam had WMD that threatened us, and to make that the case for war.
So when Blair told the BBC on Thursday morning, in response to Chilcot’s report: “I took it [the decision to go to war] in good faith because I think it was the right thing to do,” we can believe him. Of course he thought it was the right thing to do. But we must also suspect that he concealed his real reason for doing it.
That’s why the British people can be justified in believing that Tony Blair misled them. And it’s why Blair’s reputation should never recover.