LONDON, United Kingdom — Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair returned to give testimony to the Iraq Inquiry today, almost exactly a year after his last appearance. Two things — probably related — became immediately clear. The former prime minister can no longer pull a crowd and this is a one-act play.
A year ago the area around Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, across the street from Westminster Abbey and 100 yards from Parliament, was filled with several thousand demonstrators showing their undimmed anger over the Iraq War. Today, barely 70 people — mostly middle-aged — stood around in the cold waving the now traditional "Bliar" posters.
Inside the hearing room it was much of the same, although Blair looked much less tense than a year ago — healthier. The steam went out of this second recall session earlier this week when Britain's top civil servant, Cabinet Secretary Sir Gus O'Donnell, ruled that several key documents detailing private conversations Blair had with former U.S. President George W. Bush in late 2001 and early 2002 — when the possibility of war in Iraq was thoroughly discussed — were not to be de-classified.
The Iraq Inquiry panel, chaired by Lord Chilcot, has seen these notes but is not allowed to quote them in public. So early questioning was surreal. People talked around redactions of documents we can only guess at.
The secrecy is a shame, especially since Blair has published a memoir since his appearance a year ago, as has Bush. The relationship between the two leaders is key to understanding when and how the overthrow of Saddam Hussein was planned. As both men have made a couple of million dollars writing about the war, de-classifying their conversations about it seems like the right thing to do — but this kind of thinking does not motivate the pathologically discreet British civil service, nor does it inform the questioning of the five-person Iraq Inquiry panel, which is led by retired civil servants.
That said, the inquiry has uncovered some interesting details. Blair, batting away questions about what his cabinet discussed in the months before the final decision to go to war noted that his cabinet — all elected members of Parliament — were "stress-testing the politics" of going to war. They were wondering whether the "most successful center-left government" in the world should "go into alliance with right-wing conservative president."
Two documents that have been de-classified are incredibly invaluable to anyone wanting to understand how a leader takes his country to war.
In a note to his chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, written two weeks before he was scheduled to fly to Crawford, Texas to meet with Bush, Blair writes: "In all my papers, I do not have a proper worked out strategy on how we would do it. The U.S. do not either, but before I go, I need to be able to provide them with a far more intelligent and detailed analysis of a game plan."
Next he notes, "The persuasion job on this seems very tough ... Public opinion is fragile. International opinion — as I found at the EU — is pretty sceptical [sic.]"
Then he adds something that is the key to understanding his worldview: "a political philosophy that does care about other nations — e.g. Kosovo, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone — and is prepared to change regimes on the merits should be gung-ho on Saddam."
The three conflicts he mentions were all successes of his first years in office. He clearly felt confident that intervention worked.
The final point of the memo is more craven: "(3) Oil prices. This is my big domestic worry. We must concert with the U.S. or get action from others to push the price back down. Higher petrol prices really might put the public off." That sentence shimmers with irony as gas prices in Britain today are at record levels.
The other memo that is of real interest is from Foreign Secretary Jack Straw to Blair written June 5, 2003. Saddam Hussein had been swiftly overthrown and Iraq had begun to descend into chaos. Straw writes to Blair, "U.K. must be fully involved in all decisions since the U.S. forced us to be jointly responsible for the effect of all Coalition decisions across Iraq ... the U.S. must not be allowed to take U.K. support for granted. Otherwise, as the U.S. ultimately called the shots, we risked being caught in a position of sharing responsibility for events in Iraq without holding the corresponding power to influence them."
We'll see how he answers the final questions about Straw's memo. The post-war failure in Iraq ultimately cost him his job and his place in history. We'll see whether he expresses any regret about not getting more from Bush for his steadfastness.
Today's session ended with Blair expressing regret — but not for his relationship to Bush nor any of the decision-making that led to war or its aftermath. He expressed regret for the loss of life among British and coalition soldiers as well as Iraqi civilians.
When he finished several mothers of young British soldiers shouted its too late now, stood up and turned their backs on him.