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29 January 2010

At the Iraq inquiry, Blair is still avoiding specifics

Questioning on the legality of the invasion did not go far enough in the first session of the aftern

By Sophie Elmhirst

The first session of the afternoon has dealt with two issues: the legal case for war and the planning for the aftermath. The journalists emerging from the hearing room itself say it’s oddly silent in there, a hushed silence as the families of soldiers who died in the war watch Tony Blair drive his way through the questions.

The questioning, in my view, didn’t go nearly far enough on the legal case.

Sir Roderic Lyne grilled Blair on the timing and order of Goldsmith’s advice, but Blair deflected the specific questions by falling back on Goldsmith’s final advice (which declared military action legal), repeatedly offering the attorney general’s good character as reason why his advice should be trusted. An interesting moment occurred as Blair became frustrated by the line of questioning:

Blair: Forgive me, Sir Roderic, all I’m trying to say that when you actually go back and read [Resolution] 1441 it is pretty obvious that you can make a decent case for this [military action].
Lyne: Well, it’s not for me to pass judgement on that.

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Blair, as ever, relied on the general point and avoided specifics. Lyne on the other hand, didn’t take up the opportunity to challenge. Blair at this moment, and throughout, insisted on seeing the process through the grand sweep of history, rather than getting bogged down in the nitty gritty (and he seemed to get irritated by the panel constantly forcing him to consider what he obviously thinks are minor details).

On the question of planning, particularly in the aftermath of the war, Blair admits they had made an entirely false assumption — that there would be a functioning civil service in place in Iraq. And he offered, at the end of the session, advice for future missions: that if you are occupying a “failed” state, it is unlikely to have any operational civil infrastructure and you should plan accordingly.

This is where today’s evidence becomes genuinely interesting. Blair is not going to apologise or backtrack on Iraq — on the contrary, he seems to want to use the inquiry to offer his views on future military action. And if his repeated references to Iran mean anything, it would suggest he is particularly thinking of developments there.

Either this is the ultimate double bluff (distracting the media from his fudging of knotty Iraq issues by mentioning Iran), or it is a sign that Blair continues to see himself as a key player on the global stage — one whose views and assessment of the “calculus of risk” still count.


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