Blair, Iraq, and the truth at last
Does Tony Blair realise that in a couple of sentences in a religious affairs interview with one Fern Britton on television, he has blown what’s left of his defence on the Iraq war out of the water?
‘”If you had known then that there were no WMDs, would you still have gone on?” Blair was asked. He replied: “I would still have thought it right to remove him [Saddam Hussein]”. Significantly, Blair added: “I mean obviously you would have had to use and deploy different arguments about the nature of the threat.”‘ (Guardian, 12 December 2009, http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2009/dec/12/tony-blair-iraq-chilcot-inquiry)
Some of the evidence already given to the Chilcot Inquiry on the Iraq war has sought to distinguish between, on the one hand, President George Bush’s concentration on régime change as the main purpose of invading and occupying Iraq, and, on the other hand, Tony Blair’s realisation that compelling Iraq to obey UN resolutions requiring Iraq to get rid of its Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) was the only objective capable of securing UN authority for the use of force. He also appeared to understand that UN authority might well be a necessary condition for getting the support of parliamentary, media and public opinion in the UK and the rest of the EU for going to war. Admittedly this version of events doesn’t explain why Blair, having failed to secure UN authority for the use of force, nevertheless went ahead and committed British forces to fight alongside the Americans in the attack on Iraq; more than one Chilcot witness has pointed out that when UK efforts to get UN approval failed, Blair still had the option, even at that late stage, of refusing to allow British participation in the US military action on the perfectly honourable grounds that his proclaimed condition for participation — UN authority — had not been satisfied. Blair was forced to try to square this circle by devising a far-fetched and almost universally unconvincing legal fable according to which Security Council resolution 1441, read with earlier UN resolutions passed in the context of the first Gulf war, contained an implicit authority for using force against Iraq without the need for further UN authority. As Hans Blix, the senior UN weapons inspector at the time, writes in the Guardian of 14 December 2009:
In these circumstances [the UK] developed and advanced the argument that the war was authorised by the council under a series of earlier resolutions. As Condoleezza Rice put it, the alliance action “upheld the authority of the council”. It was irrelevant to this argument that China, France, Germany and Russia explicitly opposed the action and that a majority on the council declined to give the requested green light for the armed action. If hypocrisy is the compliment that virtue pays to vice then strained legal arguments are the compliments that violators of UN rules pay to the UN charter.
So all this depends on Blair’s fundamental position that WMD and what was still widely believed to be Iraq’s failure to get rid of them were his, and Britain’s, justification for the war. Blair had repeatedly acknowledged that in international law war could not be justified by the desire for, or desirability of, régime change. He had even claimed, until the last moment, that Saddam Hussein could still save his régime and continue to rule Iraq if at that eleventh hour he were prepared to comply with the UN’s demand that he disarm. (That must have caused some consternastion in Washington!)
Now, in his religious affairs interview, he admits for the first time what so many had always suspected: that even if he had known at the time that in fact Saddam had no WMD, he would still have “thought it right to remove him”: and, even more damningly, that in that case “you would have had to use and deploy different arguments about the nature of the threat.” Never mind that by his own admission, without the WMD justification the Security Council would never have authorised a war — the Council wouldn’t even authorise it at that time even when there were still apparent grounds for believing that Iraq had WMD. In his interview with Fern Britton Blair never mentions the question of international law or the absolute obligation to act in accordance with it.
A letter by a certain Ronnie Paris in the Guardian on 13 December 2009 sought to defend Blair’s reply to Fern Britton on the grounds that Blair had only said he would still “have thought it right to remove” Sadam even if he had known that Saddam had no WMD — not that he would necessarily have agreed to take part in military action to remove him in those circumstances. But Blair’s admission that without WMD and disarmament as justification for war, he “would have had to use and deploy different arguments about the nature of the threat” makes it clear that he would still have gone to war to remove Saddam: if he had meant only that he would have thought it right to do so but would not have taken any military steps to achieve it, why would he have needed to think up and deploy “different arguments” for removing him? In any case, the theme running through the whole interview echoes a familiar Blair mantra: “In the end, you’ve got to do what you believe is right.”
The only possible conclusion to be drawn from Tony Blair’s reply to Ms Britton is that his real purpose in committing Britain to the war was régime change (just as régime change was George W Bush’s openly avowed purpose — illegal, but at least honest); that he based his campaign for UN approval on WMD only because he knew it was the sole legal justification for the war that the Security Council might eventually recognise and approve, even though by their haste in resorting to war Bush and Blair forfeited any hope of UN legitimacy; and that had he known or believed that Iraq had no WMD (as of course turned out to be the case), he would still have gone to war, having dreamed up some other excuse for it, the nature of which, six years later, Mr Blair has apparently not yet worked out.
The mystery, therefore, is why Blair should have made this suicidal admission in an interview given just a few weeks before he’s due to give evidence to the Chilcot Inquiry, and soon after some at least of the evidence to the Inquiry had offered him a partial defence against one of the most damaging accusations against him (namely, that his very early promise to Bush of UK participation in an eventual war against Iraq had been recklessly unconditional; it’s now clear that Blair did impose a correct and proper condition for British participation in the war, i.e. that it should have UN approval in advance, although it’s still not clear just how clearly that vital condition had been spelled out to the Americans). Now Blair has deprived himself of any credit or defence even on that count.
Perhaps the explanation, as so often with Tony Blair, is the simple one: his infinite capacity for convincing himself of his own rightness, which he sees as the sole justification and indeed criterion for action. He can’t accept, apparently, that even his judgement is fallible: that he is capable of being wrong: that he ought to listen to those who disagree with him about the rights and wrongs of what he wants to do: and that the leader of a democracy has an absolute, unqualified obligation to obey the law. Deciding what you believe is “right” and then devising arguments that can be used to justify your decision is a sure recipe for disaster. He still, evidently, doesn’t get it.