Since November, in a clinical, modern conference center in central London, the public hearing of an inquiry into Britain's role in the Iraq war has been taking evidence. It has been a very British affair. Chaired by a former public servant, Sir John Chilcot, the inquiry has been marked by polite probing rather than electrifying cut and thrust. Yet for all the lack of drama to date, seats for the appearance of former Prime Minister Tony Blair, expected to take place Jan. 29, are in such demand that a ballot for them has had to be organized.
The reason is not or not just that Blair still retains an element of star quality, although he clearly does. There is also a sense that part of his personal Iraq story remains untold. That, despite his evidence to previous inquiries and the hundreds of interviews he has given, he has not yet explained when he decided war was both inevitable and right, nor how far he was willing to go to convince others.
It may well be that Blair's most telling disclosure has already been made. Before Christmas, he told the BBC that he would have gone to war even if he had known that former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction, conceding that "you would have had to use and deploy different arguments about the nature of the threat." Perhaps he will go further when he appears before the inquiry, but I wouldn't bet on it.
The air of anticipation about Blair's evidence is stoked by Westminster-based journalists and commentators, many of whom have either conveniently forgotten their own support for the war or hope to expunge their complicity with proof that Blair hoodwinked us all. At worst, he is portrayed as a man who cared nothing for questions of morality or legality, so determined was he to fall in behind the U.S. But that is merely to replace one fiction that Saddam was armed to the teeth with WMD with another.
I worked in Downing Street for Blair from 1998 to 2001, and although I had left his staff before the buildup to war, the Tony Blair I knew had a clear sense of right and wrong based on profound moral convictions. If anything, he saw things as either black or white too often: there were few gray areas for Blair. That contributed to an impatience with those who did not agree with him and a steadfast determination to achieve what he believed to be right by whatever means necessary.
In the case of Iraq, he unquestionably thought the world would be a better and a safer place without Saddam Hussein. It was his view long before 9/11, but his words just three weeks after the 2001 attacks are worth recalling. "The kaleidoscope has been shaken," he said. "The pieces are in flux. Soon they will settle again. Before they do, let us reorder this world around us." Clearly, regime change was not a concept that Blair woke up to only in 2003. By the time President George W. Bush's determination to remove Saddam by force was fixed, I suspect Blair saw another stark choice. Either Bush succeeded or the Iraqi leader humiliated the United States by mobilizing world opinion against the President, and forced him to back down. No gray area. Any fudge, whether inspired by the U.N. or anybody else, would be a victory for Iraq. So Blair had no hesitation in backing Bush. The alternative was to see the world reordered in a way that strengthened tyranny, encouraged terrorism and menaced freedom.
But Blair knew he could not persuade British public opinion to support military action solely on the basis that Sad-dam should go and that Bush had made up his mind. He had to use, in his own phrase, "different arguments." The arguments he chose were based on Saddam's "active, detailed and growing" WMD program and his nuclear ambitions. In doing so, Blair stretched the truth about WMD to breaking point.
If I am right, Blair thought then and believes just as strongly now that his position on the war was morally sound and that the arguments he used to defend it were morally justifiable. It might be better if he were able to say that to the Iraq inquiry next week, but he's extremely unlikely to do so. It would be interpreted, with some justification, as evidence from his own mouth that he lied. Winston Churchill famously declared that in wartime "truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies." But that argument would not excuse Blair in the eyes of the media or in the eyes of history. His critics hope to see him finally brought to book. They are likely to be disappointed. Blair has become used to being branded a liar. He won't concede any ground, because he believes it really would be dishonest to pretend he thinks he has anything for which he should apologize.
Price was a special adviser to Prime Minister Tony Blair. His latest book, Where Power Lies, is published in the U.K. in February