Apparently unfazed by the gaggle of protesters carrying “Bliar” placards outside, Tony Blair, unsurprisingly, is in the middle of putting on an impressive and articulate performance at the Chilcot inquiry into the 2003 invasion of Iraq today.
He seems assured, confident and on top of his brief. He is also keen to refer to his various speeches dealing with Iraq, going all the way back to the Chicago oration of 1999.
However, Blair has clearly chosen a controversial strategy on which to base his defence: the atrocities of 11 September 2001, which he has referred to repeatedly. Audaciously, he has in effect confirmed the theory that he backed America to the full after 9/11, and that, by the time of the Crawford meeting with George W Bush in April 2002, he had committed himself to “dealing” with Iraq.
We also know that a month previously, his foreign policy adviser David Manning had told Blair that he had relayed to the Bush administration Blair’s commitment to “regime change”.
But it is with his incessant references to 9/11 that Blair is surely on questionable ground. “I would fairly describe our policy up to September 11 as doing our best,” he said, “. . . but with a different calculus of risk assessment . . . The crucial thing after September 11 was that the calculus of risk changed.”
What Blair has — so far — failed to explain in simple terms is why the “calculus” changed, given the total lack of a link between those attacks, largely carried out by Saudis, to Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq. The former prime minister, who says that 9/11 was not an attack on the US but an attack on “us”, makes out that his entire approach to regimes such as North Korea, Iran and Iraq had to change in case they obtained weapons of mass destruction.
However, he also emphasised that had the 9/11 attackers been able to kill more than 3,000 people, then they would have done. How this undeniable fact helped to condemn Saddam is not clear.
We are left with the impression that Iraq was indeed a warped reaction to the 11 September attacks, and tha in its waket Blair in effect subcontracted out the UK’s foreign policy.
The second session has just begun and Blair has confirmed that he had “other options” than committing troops. We know from Bob Woodward’s books on Bush that the US president repeatedly told Blair that he did not have to commit troops. Blair later confirmed that he was willing to pay the “blood price”. Britain, he has just told the inquiry, had to be “right in there”.
Yet think of Harold Wilson’s achievement over Vietnam, supporting the US action but witholding British troops. It must be hard for the dead soldiers’ families sitting behind Blair to understand why their loved ones died, if they did not have to be there.
The inquiry has now moved on to the rather tired subject of “weapons of mass destruction”, and Blair is again trying to point out that it is not a separate issue from “regime change”. “The nature of the regime did actually make a difference to the nature of the WMD threat,” he said.
I’ll be summarising Blair’s overall performance later.
Update 11.40am: That 45-minute claim
On the issue of WMDs, about which the inquiry is now questioning Blair, the former prime minister has just made out that the media reaction on the day of the dossier’s publication — including the Evening Standard headline “45-minutes to attack” — was unfortunately over the top. A different reaction would have been better, he says.
But here is Blair’s former chief of staff Jonathan Powell at the time:
“Alastair — what will be the headline in the [Evening] Standard on day of publication? What do we want it to be?” [From the Hutton inquiry, Appendix 13(20).]