Tony Blair still in denial

by Hugh Cortazzi

The official inquiry in London about the Iraq war is not a trial or an attempt to assign blame. It is an attempt to uncover the facts about the war and to consider lessons that should be learned from the war. Much of the testimony, which the inquiry has heard recently, has been about whether the war was legal under international law and was a “just” war — morally justifiable.

The Chilcot inquiry heard from the legal advisers to the foreign secretary. They testified that, in their view, in the absence of a further U.N. resolution, the war was illegal. They explained that they had so advised the then foreign secretary, Jack Straw, who was himself a lawyer but not, as Foreign Office officials pointed out, an international lawyer. Straw had dismissed the advice that had been given to him. One of the two Foreign Office lawyers had resigned in protest.

The inquiry also heard from Lord Goldsmith, the attorney general at the time, who was a friend of then Prime Minister Tony Blair. He had at first taken a similar view about the illegality of military action against Iraq and had sent a long memorandum to the prime minister explaining his reasoning. However, after discussions with American lawyers, he had changed his mind and eventually decided that action against Iraq would be legal.

His original lengthy memorandum was not circulated to members of the Cabinet, who were only shown his one page conclusion supporting the proposed action. This had been written to satisfy the chiefs of the defense staff who had insisted that before British forces were committed to war they must have confirmation that British forces operating in Iraq would be acting legally.

The attorney general, who is the chief British law officer, denied that he had been pressured by Blair or other members of Blair’s entourage to come to his final decision, but he admitted that American “arguments” had persuaded him to change his mind. British forces were ready on the borders of Iraq and Blair had committed Britain to supporting the Americans. If Goldsmith had continued to maintain that the war was illegal, he was no doubt made to realize what this would mean for Anglo-American relations.

When Blair gave his six-hour testimony to the inquiry Jan. 29, he wanted to concentrate on whether the war was a just one. He argued that it was. When questioned about the assertion that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction (WMD), he declared that he had been convinced by the intelligence available to him that they really did exist. The fact that such weapons were never discovered did not bother him.

He declared that then Iraq President Saddam Hussein clearly had had such weapons as shown, for instance, by the gas attacks on the Kurdish minority in northern Iraq. He had suggested to a BBC questioner in an earlier broadcast interview that regardless of whether there were WMD in Iraq or not, the war had been justified by the need for regime change: Saddam was an evil monster and Iraq was much better without him.

He argued that his remarks in the interview had been misinterpreted and went on to imply that similar action could be justified against Iran because it was a threat to stability in the Middle East. When asked about the large number of Iraqi casualties as a result of the bombing and fighting, he brushed the questions aside, arguing speciously that because of the overthrow of Saddam thousands more children who would have died under the regime had been able to grow up.

Asked if he regretted anything, Blair said he did not, although he accepted responsibility. His refusal to apologize for any mistakes that had been made or for the casualties, civilian and military that the war had caused, infuriated relatives of members of the British forces who had lost their lives in Iraq.

When Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who at the time served as finance minister, gives his testimony to the inquiry, he is likely to be pressed about how far he was consulted by Blair and on how much support he gave to the war. He will also be asked about the extent to which he had been willing to finance the weapons and helicopters that British forces needed to fight effectively in Iraq.

The panel that was selected by the prime minister has in the view of many observers been too gentle in its questioning. Almost everyone would agree that Saddam was evil and Iraq would be a better place without him, but there are other states with evil leaders ( such as Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe).

The action against Iraq was justified to the British people on the grounds that the regime posed an immediate threat to the British people because of its WMD. Many believed then that if there was a real threat, we had to support the action being taken by the government, but there was no such threat.

The Americans claimed to believe that Saddam supported al-Qaida and, therefore, were indirectly responsible for the massacre of 9/11, but Saddam’s regime had had nothing to do with al-Qaida. The invasion of Iraq, however, gave al-Qaida and other extremist groups the incentive and opportunity to intervene in Iraq.

It is unlikely that opinions in Britain about the Iraq war have been changed as a result of the testimonies given to the inquiry. Blair was keen to defend his “legacy,” but his performance has done nothing to enhance his stature. Nor have the various statements to the inquiry answered properly the questions of whether the war was legally or morally justified.

Hugh Cortazzi, a former British career diplomat, served as ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.