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Jonathan Power: Tony Blair, War Criminal?

Britain’s official public inquiry into why the United Kingdom joined the United States in the latter’s ill-conceived foray into Mesopotamia in 2003 ground on last week with interrogation of Britain’s former prime minister, Tony Blair. But whether this inquiry will ultimately grind the former PM hard enough is the question. Last week, sporting his usual sharp lawyer’s brain and bottomless charm, Blair seemed to walk out of the hearing’s doors with his head held high. He conceded very little to his critics.

Yes, he more or less admitted that he’d given the former U.S. president, George W. Bush, a blank check to invade Iraq, long before the United States set about trying to convince the rest of the world that it had “irrefutable evidence” about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. But all British prime ministers, for as long as one can remember, have done as much. Complete support of the United States in all matters of national security is considered to be a fundamental and immovable pillar of British foreign policy.

Of course, Blair did shift his ground in saying, contrary to a previous TV interview, that he would not have thought it right to remove Saddam Hussein if had he known there were no WMD inside Iraq.

However, Blair did reiterate what he has said many times before—that the 9/11 terrorist attack on New York “changed dramatically” American and British views of Saddam Hussein. But now as then, Blair engaged in no attempt to argue, much less offer any proof, that there was a link between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. It was simply stated. The lie was left to hang in the air. Blair’s argument about 9/11 is totally specious.

The big question, of course, remains unanswered: Did Blair lie about the reason for going to war with Iraq—about the supposed stockpile of weapons of mass destruction that Iraq possessed?

Well, it depends how you define lie (pace Bill Clinton). If you define lie as saying this cat is black when in fact it's white, then Blair didn't lie on the big issues. But what he did do was give the impression that the cat was assuredly white when in fact it was sort of grayish black. His intelligence services did seem to have some of the goods on Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, even though later, weeks before the United States and Britain went to war, Hans Blix, the chief UN weapons’ inspector, concluded that Western intelligence services were probably wrong. In one memorable statement, Blix said that just because a man hangs a sign on his gate that says, “Beware of the dog,” doesn’t mean that he actually has a dog.

But as previous independent reports made by a distinguished judge and former high civil servant have made clear, such caveats were left out of Blair’s public announcements, and the presentation was polished to the point of serious distortion. We, in the public, didn't have the pre-polished version, but Blair did and he must have known in his mind, if not his heart, that he was gambling with the evidence. That he wasn’t prepared to persuade George W. Bush to wait a few more weeks to see the evidence that Hans Blix was collecting on the ground inside Iraq was totally irresponsible. Sanctions had Saddam boxed in. He was able to harm no one outside his country. In fact, the earlier UN policing which followed the 1991 war had rid Iraq of all potential WMD. That war itself had effectively wiped out Hussein’s air force and navy, while breaking the back of his army.

Interestingly (and sadly), the one instance in which Blair may well be said to have lied concerns the controversy over the naming of the Ministry of Defense's weapons' expert, David Kelly, who committed suicide shortly after he was outed in the press as the source of reports claiming the government's public dossier on Iraq's weapons had been “sexed up.”

Although an inquiry into Kelly’s death exonerated Blair of any blame for precipitating the suicide, a BBC interview caught Blair lying in a way we could all understand. He told the interviewer, “I don't believe we had any option, however, but to disclose his name [to the press].”

Until that interview Blair had always maintained that it was “completely untrue” that the government was implicated in Kelly’s outing. But such is the man. And such was his unnecessary, immoral, and illegal war.

Jonathan Power is a syndicated columnist and a contributing editor of Prospect magazine in London. His most recent book is Conundrums of Humanity (Martinus Nijhoff, 2007).

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