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29 January 2010

Chilcot at lunchtime: a walk in the park for articulate Blair

Selective quotes bandied around amid wasted opportunity.

By James Macintyre

Some of the questions from the Chilcot panel of the latest “Iraq inquiry” have been pertinent and to the point. Much progress has been made over the question of legality, and today Tony Blair was pressed — albeit only once — on the lack of any link between the 11 September 2001 attacks and Saddam Hussein.

However, in the end this has been not just an anticlimax in media terms, but a wasted opportunity in terms of scrutiny. The day-long discussion has emerged as a chat, with both the panel and Blair able to reach for selective references and quotations from the hundreds of documents surrounding the build-up to war.

Blair, for example, uses specific lines from the reports of the UN’s chief weapons inspector Hans Blix, who, on the other hand, told Mehdi Hasan this week of his grave concerns about the drumbeat to war in 2003.

Blair has put on another of his classic performances; the old master has lost none of his skill. In fact, if anything, he appears more on top of his brief than he was in office. The same thing happened when he testified last year to a Commons committee on the Israel-Palestine conflict, about which he is clearly much better informed these days.

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Meanwhile, the panel has again allowed itself to be distracted by certain red herrings — 9/11, Bush’s position throughout, even old arguments over WMDs — while sometimes backing Blair’s points and occasionally even finishing his sentences.

All the while, it has failed to pinpoint important quotations and pieces of evidence and ask Blair short, sharp questions that would have prevented him from being able to think quickly, as he does so well, of an answer during the question. Blair has not, for example, been pressed properly on the crucial Manning memo of March 2002 showing Blair’s commitment to “regime change” a full year before the invasion.

But then again, Manning himself, bizarrely and frustratingly, was not asked about his own memo, either.

This inquiry is better informed, broader and has fuller context than the previous investigations into the Iraq war, especially Hutton. But — watching Blair run rings around the panel members today — it is hard to see that it will achieve anything more than its predecessors.

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