LONDON — The circus is coming back to town. Friday, not for the first time and maybe not for the last, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair will testify before an official inquiry into the Iraq War.
The Iraq Inquiry, it's official title, was set up to examine the U.K.'s involvement in the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and subsequent occupation of the country — "to establish, as accurately as possible, what happened and to identify the lessons that can be learned."
In a room inside the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre across the square from Parliament, Blair will take questions from a panel of five headed by Sir John Chilcot, a prime example of that unique form of British public life, the Whitehall Mandarin, a senior figure in the permanent government of elite civil servants.
In the streets outside another unique species of British life, the morally outraged protester, will gather in their hundreds — perhaps thousands — to demonstrate. As they have for the best part of a decade, people, in a lather of righteousness normally found in revival tents, will chant slogans and wave placards demanding Blair's arrest for war crimes. They will dip their hands in stage blood and hold them up for as long as it takes for photographers to get a shot of them. At the wilder ends some in the crowd will jostle police and hope for a smack on the noggin so they can feel even more aggrieved.
Having followed the proceedings for several months I can be reasonably certain of how Friday will go inside the hearing room. There is something more complete about the Chilcot Inquiry than previous attempts to get at "the truth" about Iraq. The fact that many of the main Iraq players are now out of office or retired has loosened tongues and shaken up memories. It has also frayed the ties that bind people when they are in government and forced by convention to obey the rules of "collective responsibility" for their decisions.
Most of the questions will focus on when precisely Blair made the decision to go to war. There will be lawyerly probing of minutiae about pre-war intelligence on WMD. The earlier testimony of those former colleagues trying to distance themselves from the former prime minister will be brought up and he will get a chance to respond. If the idea of the five committee members is to find out something new from these questions it will all be a waste of time. The story of how the U.S. and Britain and the other partners in the "Coalition of the Willing" went to war is a pretty well-covered one.
The Bush administration's decision to overthrow Saddam was probably made before its arrival in office — as Nicolas Lemann's New Yorker article published the week Bush was inaugurated in 2001 shows. Blair first heard of it when he went to Washington immediately after 9/11 and he had signed on for regime change more or less by February 2002. Everything else was window dressing or, as Noam Chomsky called it in a different context, manufacturing consent.
By the time of Blair's address to Parliament in September 2002 about the present danger Saddam represented — including the ability to strike British bases in Cyprus with WMD — the war train had left the station and anyone with a reasonably sophisticated knowledge of the way the world worked knew it. The maddening quasi-judicial probing inside the hall on Friday and the self-absorbed lunacy outside will not add a drop of new knowledge about this.
For me the questions that matter are the ones related to Tony Blair's relationship with George W. Bush because here the personal became the catastrophically political. It clouded the judgment of the shrewdest and most talented politician I have ever dealt with professionally.
And now, in the interest of online journalistic integrity I must declare where I stood on the question of war. I was all for it. I had reported from Kurdistan in the mid-1990s and seen first hand what Saddam's regime did to its people. In covering human rights issues for more than a decade I had come across far too many people who had been victims of Saddam's torturers. But before that, I had been in Sarajevo during the Bosnian Civil War, met victims of ethnic cleansing and then had to listen to the smug evasions of Britain's then Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd as he explained why it was hard luck on the Bosnians but military intervention for humanitarian reasons was not an option. Well yes, it was, whatever Hurd said.
Humanitarian intervention is an idea whose time has come. So whatever doubts I had about making common cause with neo-conservative ideologues on regime change in Iraq, I knew that overthrowing Saddam was the right thing to do.
And as I was in Iraq when Saddam finally went down, and had my cheeks covered with kisses from grateful Iraqis, I am certain I was correct. And as I was there a year later when the country was on a vertical descent into hell I am equally convinced that Sir John and his fellow inquirers should focus on why Blair never used the leverage of his relationship with Bush to try and make the occupation work.
From the day they reached Baghdad in April 2003 it was clear that there was no American plan for maintaining law and order. By the autumn of 2003 the lawlessness had begun to be replaced by an insurgency made up of Saddam loyalists and jihadists. Still Washington did nothing. On the first anniversary of the overthrow of Saddam the insurgency exploded all over Iraq.
When did Blair realize that a disaster was in the making? Before the first bomb fell on Baghdad his advisers had told him the Americans had no plan for occupying the country. Did he ever bring it up with Bush? If so what did he say? If not, why not? As Iraq spun out of control and whatever good the removal of Saddam had done evaporated, why did Blair not say to the Bush administration, "Get your act together or I'm pulling British troops out?"
I don't think anything could have forced Bush to improve his performance. We know from good old fashioned reporting — not special inquiries — what was going on in the White House. Bob Woodward and Tom Ricks have combed the wreckage and documented the dysfunction of the Bush administration and the incurious, self-deluded man at the heart of it.
What I simply do not understand is how someone as shrewd as Tony Blair stayed allied with Bush without complaint and without maneuvering for some kind of fresh policy from Washington. Or, failing that, why he didn't take some kind of evasive action to save his own political neck — and British national interest.
That's the question I want Sir John to ask. Because as it stands now, the bloody failure of Iraq means that humanitarian intervention as policy is no longer viable. That is a tragedy for people living under the worst dictatorships who might have been helped if Iraq had shown the way towards a muscular and just interventionist policy. You cannot "establish, as accurately as possible, what happened" much less "identify the lessons that can be learned" until you document just how closely Blair and Bush, alone, interacted. Only two people can answer those questions and one of them will be taking questions before the Iraq Inquiry. I hope the questions get asked and I hope the folks outside the hall shut up for a second and listen to the answer.
You can see if Blair faces the music or calls the tune by following the testimony live at www.iraqinquiry.org.uk from 9:30 a.m. GMT on Friday and if that is too early or too late for you, the testimony is archived and you can watch at your convenience.