Defending the indefensible

By MIKE JOHNSON [email protected]

Mike Johnson is a freelance journalist who worked in the Algarve for more than 20 years. He now lives in Plymouth in the UK and comments on world topics which fascinate him.

In what was probably the most eagerly awaited political event for many months, the former British Prime Minister Tony Blair was called to give evidence to the Chilcot Inquiry into the reasons why Britain went to war with Iraq in 2003.

The chairman of the inquiry, Lord Chilcot, started proceedings by pointing out that the hearing was not a trial – its purpose being to establish the facts and thinking behind the decision and the ensuing consequences.

As Blair took his seat in front of the five-member panel, police helicopters droned overhead. He looked gaunt and apprehensive. There was none of the usual chirpy, self-assured manner, which was understandable.

Since the end of the war, public opinion has been overwhelmingly against him. Indeed, several organisations and individuals have unsuccessfully tried to bring charges of treason against him for illegally taking Britain to war. During the early weeks of the inquiry, evidence had been taken from senior politicians and civil servants, much of which was critical of Blair’s handling of the situation. Now he had to justify his actions.

The panel looked stern as Sir Roderic Lyne, a former British Ambassador to the Russian Federation, asked Blair: “Why did we invade Iraq and why at that time?” Blair’s reply, and a position he maintained throughout his questioning, was that in the uncertain world after the attack on the Twin Towers in New York on September 11 2001, it was simply too risky not to take action against “a monster”, who had used chemical weapons on his own people, even though there was no proven connection between Iraq and the 9/11 attack.

He went on to say: “I never regarded September 11 as an attack on America. I regarded it as an attack on us.” He also added that to leave Saddam in power would result in a situation today where Iraq and neighbouring Iran would jointly pose a major terrorist threat.

This brought us to what exactly was agreed between Blair and President Bush in the run-up to the invasion. It had been widely believed in Britain that we had gone to war on ‘Bush’s shirt-tails’.

Looking more confident now, Blair strenuously denied this. He was no ‘poodle’ of the US.  He pointed out that President Clinton, in 1998, had taken the view that regime change in Iraq was necessary because he could not trust Saddam Hussein to disarm.

United Nations weapons inspectors had been in Iraq, on and off, searching for evidence of Saddam’s supposed programme of developing weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) since the end of the 1991 Gulf War.

If the US and Britain were to take further military action, it had to be on the basis of WMDs being found, in accordance with various UN resolutions. Regime change, on its own, had no legal justification. Unfortunately, despite years of diligent searches, the inspectors found no such evidence.

A series of meetings between Blair and George Bush had taken place and, somewhere along the line, the British Prime Minister told Bush: “We’re with you – whatever.” There had been a vital exchange of letters between the two men at the time, but these had not been allowed to be placed in the public domain.

Referring to his meetings with Bush, the former Prime Minister said: “The US view throughout was that this leopard (Saddam) was not going to change his spots… If the UN route failed, then my view was that it had to be dealt with.” All well and good, but first he had to convince parliament and the British people that any invasion would be lawful. There were two main ploys he used – the first was to produce a dossier, which would show from gathered intelligence that Iraq posed a real threat to the UK.

This dossier was compiled and duly published. In it, it was alleged that Saddam had WMDs capable of being deployed at 45 minutes notice. In a forward to the dossier, Blair reinforced that view by saying this was true “beyond doubt”. Those two words were to come back and haunt him.

British newspapers headlined the claim, although Blair admitted that the intelligence reports did not refer to WMDs but to short-range battlefield weapons. He admitted to the inquiry that he should have corrected this impression, and maybe should have published the relevant intelligence in full – but without the forward.

His second ploy was to persuade government’s senior law officer – the attorney-general Lord Goldsmith – to declare that an invasion would be legal, even without a fresh UN mandate. This would not be forthcoming unless WMDs were discovered. Giving evidence two days before Blair, Goldsmith told the inquiry that, until the last minute, his advice had been that the issue was “finely balanced” and a new UN resolution would be “safer”. He only changed his mind after being sent to the US and, on his return, decided force WAS justified using the ‘revival’ argument, citing the same grounds on which the UN gave the go-ahead for military action against Iraq in 1991.

Lord Goldsmith denied that there had been any pressure from Downing Street to change his advice. He said, the only pressure came from the Ministry of Defence and the Civil Service, who asked him for a definitive decision. They were worried that British troops and officials might be liable to prosecution in the International Criminal Court if he did not give his clearance for action. In the end, the attorney-general gave the operation his green light.

It was interesting that the inquiry panel throughout failed to ask follow-up questions, which might have produced more revealing evidence. However, they were not barristers or journalists – only laymen appointed by the government.

Two matters on which they might have pressed Blair, but failed to do so, were his insistence that the final decision to go to war was his personally, and implied that cabinet approval was not important. He might also have been pressed to explain why he thought It unnecessary to tell the cabinet that the two most senior Foreign Office legal advisers had constantly held the view that invasion would be illegal without a second UN resolution, and that their advice had been disregarded by the attorney-general.      

One journalist who did get her moment of glory was Fern Britton who, in a BBC-TV interview,      had asked the Prime Minister: “If you had known then that there were no WMDs, would you still have gone on?” Blair, looking distinctly uneasy, replied: “I would still have thought it right to remove him (Saddam).”  Asked by the inquiry to explain this, Blair surprisingly admitted he had been unprepared for the question but had certainly not meant to suggest the war was all about regime change.

Sir John Chilcot asked Blair at the end of his questioning if he had any regrets about the war. He replied he was sorry it had been divisive, but would do it again as he believed it had been right to remove Saddam. Thinking, perhaps, to give him the opportunity to say he regretted the loss of life, particularly among British servicemen, Sir John asked: “Have you anything further you’d like to say?”, Blair simply replied, “No” and got up to leave. To express further regret would simply have been to admit that the soldiers had died in vain. He could never do that.