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Monday, 1 February 2010

29 January 2010

Sorry this is a bit later than usual – I wanted to wait until after Tony Blair’s appearance at the Iraq inquiry today.

So, what did I make of it? Well, my overwhelming sense is that what we witnessed today was an extraordinary insight into the inner workings of the Blair mind.

You may agree or disagree with the decisions that he took – but after his six hours in the witness box, you can’t really claim that you still don’t understand why he took the view that he did.

Maybe you had better things to do today than sit glued to the TV to watch him in action. So here are some of the things he said that stick in my mind:

-- Everything changed after the attacks of September 11th, 2001. Not the risk that Saddam Hussein posed, but what Mr Blair called the “calculus of risk”. In other words, what might have seemed a tolerable risk before 9/11 was no longer tolerable after the attacks.

-- He didn’t make a “secret deal” with President Bush at his meeting at the Presidential ranch in Crawford, Texas, in April 2002 – but he did say, in terms, that he was committed to joining the US to “deal with” Saddam.

-- He is convinced that UN Security Council resolution 1441 did provide legal cover for the use of military force. He wouldn’t have gone to war if the then Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, hadn’t said that in his judgement military action would be legal – and, despite all his earlier misgivings, that is what Goldsmith eventually said.

-- As for the intelligence on which he based his assessment of the risk that Saddam posed, yes, the intelligence was wrong in some important aspects, but he is still convinced that Saddam had every intention of reviving his chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programmes if he’d been given the chance.

Was there an apology? No. Contrition? No. Tony Blair was totally convinced in 2003 that he was doing the right thing – and today, despite everything that has happened since, he is still equally convinced.

Here’s the key quote: “What is important is not to ask the March 2003 question but to ask the 2010 question. Supposing we had backed off this military action, supposing we had left Saddam and his sons who were going to follow him, in charge of Iraq, people who had used chemical weapons, caused the death of over a million people? What we now know is that he retained absolutely the intent and the intellectual know-how to restart a nuclear and a chemical weapons programme …”

On his relations with the US, one thing he said intrigued me. He referred back to the discussions he’d had with President Clinton ahead of the NATO intervention in Kosovo in 1999. What it boiled down was this: Clinton had helped us out on Kosovo, and I strongly felt we should back the US on Iraq. And don’t forget, there was no explicit UN backing for the Kosovo intervention either.

Did anything surprise me? Well, I was surprised to see how very tense and nervous he looked at the start of the day – true, he wasn’t on trial, but I suspect that to him it felt as if he was. And to be honest, I’d forgotten how fluent he is when making a case. This was a man who had done a lot of homework.

As for the members of the inquiry team, the professional interviewer in me rather admired the way they managed to interrupt his flow and stop him wondering off down textual by-ways where he plainly would have felt more comfortable.

So did we learn anything today that we didn’t already know? Not a lot about the mechanics of what happened, perhaps – but, in my view, a great deal about what was going on inside Tony Blair’s head.

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