LONDON // Tony Blair made all the right decisions before, during and after the invasion of Iraq. At least, he did according to Tony Blair. During six hours of evidence yesterday before the Iraq War Inquiry in London, the British prime minister at the time of the 2003 invasion exuded a faint air of incredulity that anyone should doubt his motives, reasoning or righteousness.
True, he conceded, Saddam Hussein did not possess the weapons of mass destruction that, supposedly, was the reason the UK joined the American-led invasion. But, Mr Blair pointed out more than once, everyone in the world thought he did have them. And he had no regrets. It was right to topple Saddam, he insisted. "The decision I took - and frankly would take again - was if there was any possibility that he could develop weapons of mass destruction, we should stop him," he said.
"That was my view then and that is my view now." The 56-year-old former prime minister would like to be remembered for being the Labour Party's most successful leader, bringing peace to Northern Ireland and reforming Britain's schools. He led the country from 1997 for a decade, winning three general elections. Yet, like it or not, his legacy is Iraq, the deep divisions it created in the UK and the dubious benefits its aftermath brought to Iraq itself.
Attired in a sober but immaculate dark blue suit, white shirt and red tie, Mr Blair oozed a sort of diffident defiance as he defended every move he and his government had made in the build-up to war and after it. He arrived, via a rear entrance, two hours before the start of hearings, possibly to avoid an anti-war demonstration by protesters, including families of some of the 179 British servicemen and women who died in Iraq.
Bereaved families who had seats in the inquiry room seemed unimpressed by Mr Blair's performance, accusing him of being smug and unapologetic. Anne Donnachie, whose 18-year-old son Paul was killed by a sniper in Iraq, said: "From what I have heard, he is just denying everything. He will just not face up to the facts." Theresea Evans, whose son Llywelyn, 24, died in a Chinook helicopter crash in 2003, said: "I would simply like Tony Blair to look me in the eyes and say he was sorry. Instead, he is in there smirking."
Sorry was not a word that readily passed Mr Blair's lips as he made clear that it was always his intention to join the Americans if it came to war with Iraq. He denied claims that he had reached a secret deal with George W Bush when the pair met at the latter's ranch in Crawford, Texas, 11 months before the invasion. But, pressed by the five-member inquiry panel on what he thought Mr Bush took from that meeting, Mr Blair said: "I think what he took from that was exactly what he should have taken, which was if it came to military action because there was no way of dealing with this diplomatically, we would be with him."
Mr Blair said that while Saddam was eventually found not to have a weapon of mass destruction, his regime had retained the "intent and intellectual know-how" to produce chemical and nuclear weapons once UN inspectors had pulled out. He conceded that, since 1998, regime change in Baghdad had been an aim of the US government but said that Britain had always wanted to go down the diplomatic route. But September 11 attacks were a watershed event.
"My assessment of risk prior to September 11 was that Saddam was a menace, that he was a threat, he was a monster, but we would have to try and make best," said Mr Blair. "Up to September 11 we thought he was a risk but we thought it was worth trying to contain it. Crucially, after September 11 the calculus of risk changed. "After September 11, our view, the American view, changed and changed dramatically. The primary consideration for me was to send an absolutely powerful, clear and unremitting message that, after September 11, if you were a regime engaged in WMD, you had to stop."
Mr Blair's only slightly uncomfortable moment came when he was asked about a BBC television interview last month in which he was asked if he would still have gone to war even had he known at the time there were no weapons of mass destruction. His reply at the time was: "I would still have thought it right to remove him. Obviously you would have had to use and deploy different arguments about the nature of the threat."
Yesterday, he smiled at the inquiry panel, chaired by Sir John Chilcot. "Even with all my experience in dealing with interviews, it still indicates that I have got something to learn about it," said Mr Blair. Many in the room muttered amused disbelief. He went on to claim that he had not meant it to come out that way. "Obviously, all I was saying was you cannot describe the nature of the threat in the same way if we knew then what we know now."
On the legality of the war, Mr Blair reiterated his position that he believed UN Resolution 1441, passed in late 2002, validated military action. The inquiry board, made up of five titled and retired civil servants, who have already been criticised for their lack of incisive questioning, did not press him on why Russia, China, the French and other members of the UN Security Council advised at the time that an invasion would be illegal.
Mr Blair, who used expansive gestures with his hands throughout the questioning, agreed that unequivocal backing from the United Nations for the war would have made "life a lot easier". But he said that Mr Bush decided the UN Security Council's support "wasn't necessary". He also denied that insufficient thought went in to post-war planning, though he said things obviously would have been done differently "if we knew then what we know now".
Mr Blair blamed the death and chaos in post-war Iraq on al Qa'eda and strife fomented by Iran. "People didn't think that al Qa'eda and Iran would play the role that they did. It was really the external elements of al Qa'eda and Iran that really caused this mission very nearly to fail." Critics will say that most of us learnt little from Mr Blair's performance yesterday. Sceptics might argue that it was in his best interests that we did not.