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,

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.


5 Responses

  1. Deciding what you believe is “right” and then devising arguments that can be used to justify your decision is one way of allowing the end to justify the means. And that is generally held to be a bad idea.

  2. I’m not sure the  belief in his own rightness explains his willingness to invade after, as we now know from Chilcot,  he was advised there was virtually no post war planning.

    Brian writes: Tony, I entirely agree. It doesn’t explain it, still less excuse it. Nor does it explain or excuse his failure to tell Bush on 17 or 18 March 2003 (or even earlier) that he would not authorise UK participation in the attack on Iraq, on the grounds that: (a) it had always been a condition of UK participation that the use of force should have been authorised in advance by the Security Council, and that condition had not been satisfied; (b) using force without UN authority would be a breach of the Charter and hence of international law, and would gravely undermine the authority of the Charter and of the UN; (c) using force at that time was not a ‘last resort’: agreeing to give the weapons inspectors a few more months to complete their work would be infinitely preferable, as indeed a clear majority of the Council’s members wanted; and (d) a large part of UK and EU public opinion, indeed of world opinion, would strenuously oppose an attack on Iraq at that time. He could have added that for the US to go ahead on its own in launching a war at that time, without significant allies, would place a serious strain on the transatlantic alliance and on America’s relations, not only with Britain but also, even more seriously, with most of America’s natural friends and allies in Europe, a situation that could easily be avoided by waiting for a few more months to see what might come out of the inspectors’ further work in Iraq. And lastly, to return to your comment above, he could have expressed strong opposition to an invasion of Iraq before there had been adequate planning for the post-invasion situation. But he was presumably so obsessed with his ‘passionate belief’ in the need to ‘remove Saddam’ that he wouldn’t do any of these things. (Might he also have been influenced, even subsconsciously, by a deep reluctance to terminate his cosy personal relationship with Bush and to lose forever the hero-worship he was enjoying from the great mass of the American people as their best and trustiest friend and ally? To go from that to being spat on as a coward and traitor would have been a bitter pill. Possible motives: not excuses.)

  3. In all this discussion there is no mention  of the Spanish PM, who appeared in the Azores photo, José Mª Aznar. But everyone, especially in Spain, always knew that he was just there as the waiter to serve the coffee.

  4. Ronnie Paris says:

    Why only quote half my letter? I went on to say that there is no other way to interpret TB’s acknowledgment of the need for other arguments than as an acknowledgement that regime change was not sufficient grounds for invasion. Surely you’d agree that this is in fact implicit in what he said?
    In any case, none of this changes anything. He didn’t know there were no WMD and he didn’t need any further reasons. Refusal to disarm was the reason given then and now for the invasion. WMD were seriously believed in by everyone in the UN- the weapons inspectors had reported on March 6 2003 that Iraq still had (amongst other things) 10,000 litres of anthrax unaccounted for. If you’d been PM at the time, would you not have thought that this was a threat?
    It’s fine to disagree with the invasion but why do you want to rewrite history?

    Brian writes: Thank you for this. I didn’t quote the whole of your letter because I didn’t think the rest of it added anything to the argument which you had put forward and with which I was disagreeing. Specifically, I don’t think Blair’s remarks can be interpreted in the way you suggest. Blair’s “acknowledgment of the need for other arguments” was solely in the context of a hypothetical situation in which Blair knew or believed that Iraq had no WMD — as indeed the UN inspectors were beginning to suspect might be the case and as Dr Blix has subsequently confirmed. Blair had repeatedly and publicly admitted, not that regime change was “insufficient” grounds for an invasion as you suggest, but that it could not legally constitute such grounds at all, as his own Lord Chancellor had explicitly warned him. The devastating implication of Blair’s remarks in this interview is that if he could not have used WMD as justification, and given that he was already on record as acknowledging that régime change could not justify invasion, he would have had to think of some other argument to justify war. IOW, by his own extraordinary admission he was in favour of attacking Iraq whether or not there were WMD; his real reason for this was his desire for régime change; but he knew that régime change was not a legally tenable objective for war. So the argument about WMD was a sham; and if that argument had not been available, he would have had to think up another sham argument instead. This is not the way that honourable statesmen behave.

    It’s thus not the case that “I want to re-write history”. But to suggest that Blair had a reasonable belief in the existence of WMD, that this was his principal reason for believing that war was justified, and that all he was saying to Fern Britton was that he realised that some additional justification would also have been necessary, misrepresents Blair’s position in just about every respect.

    You ask if I would have regarded Iraqi WMD as a threat, had I been prime minister at the time. The answer is that (1) I would have been extremely sceptical about the strength of the evidence for WMD, given the sparseness and unreliability of the intelligence; (2) I would have been even more sceptical about Bush’s case that suspicion of WMD, even if supported by more and harder evidence than actually existed, could possibly justify attacking Iraq, when his real reason for wanting war was his obsession with régime change; (3) I would have told Bush that unless there was a second UNSC reolution explicitly authorising the use of force at that particular time, when the inspectors had not yet finished their work, there could be no question of Britain going to war, which would be illegal, undermine the UN and the Charter, and lay those responsible open to the charge of committing the crime of aggression; (4) I would have made strong efforts to forge a united EU position in opposition to a premature war, in close consultation especially with the French and the Germans, but also in agreement with the Russians and Chinese; and (5) I would have given every possible support to attempts in the Security Council to persuade the Americans to defer any decision on military action until the inspectors had had time to finish their work and to report to the Council their conclusions regarding the existence of WMD and their view of whether the Iraqi leaders’ lack of cooperation with them had been so extreme that it could justify attacking and occupying their country and killing thousands of their citizens. I would be extremely surprised if the FCO (although apparently not the then Foreign Secretary) and our closest EU partners were not urging all five of these views on Mr Blair, and I can only think that there must have been some deep flaws in his character that prevented him from adopting them.

  5. Ken Hunter says:

    Having 2 born again believers,essentially 2 fundamentalists in close co-operation resolving the WMD dilemma,does not seem like progressive politics.
    Surely they are both fixated on authority from on high.
    Mr Bush did not seem to take climate change seriously,probably assuming the
    big boss on high would take care.
    With their ingrained religiousity it will always be useless to conradict joint decisions as in WMD.

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