For weeks before the invasion of Iraq, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and United States President George Bush had been holding out a stark message to Saddam Hussein: disarm, or be destroyed. Even as international inspectors scoured for weapons of mass destruction that didn’t exist, and the two countries used fabricated intelligence to lobby the United Nations for a vote to sanction war, their mind was made up.
“The start date for the military campaign was now penciled in for 10 March”,” Blair’s foreign policy advisor David Manning wrote at the end of the two leaders’ January 31, 2003 meeting. “This was when the bombing would begin”.
Looking down the barrel at Sir John Chilcot’s official enquiry into the Iraq war—which is widely expected to deliver a sharp indictment — Blair has come closer than ever before to the apology he vowed he’d never make.
Blair has admitted “the intelligence we received was wrong”. He’s accepted that the destruction of the Iraqi state paved the way for years of war, and the rise of the Islamic State. He’s stopped short of actually taking responsibility for either, though—and that’s attracted not a little criticism.
The facts are well known. The Blair government’s case for war, as made before the United Kingdom’s Parliament, was that Saddam Hussein’s “military planning allows for some of the WMD to be ready within 45 minutes of an order to use them”. It added that Iraq had sought “significant quantities of uranium from Africa”, as part of a pursuit of nuclear weapons.
Both claims turned out to be bogus. The documents purporting to show a uranium purchase from Niger were crude forgeries. Saddam Hussein had, moreover, dismantled his chemical weapons arsenal years.
Major-General Michael Laurie, one of those involved in producing the dossier wrote to the Chilcot Inquiry in 2011, saying “the purpose of the dossier was precisely to make a case for war, rather than setting out the available intelligence, and that to make the best out of sparse and inconclusive intelligence the wording was developed with care”.
In another official memo, Blair’s staff noted “the benefit of obscuring the fact that in terms of WMD Iraq is not that exceptional”. Put simply, this was a plan to mislead.
Blair’s so-called apology dodges all the hard questions. Did he know that his intelligence reports were unreliable or inaccurate? What role did he play in having them embellished by his staff? What end-state did his headlong pursuit of war seek?
The answers are important, because the lies cost lives—and still devour them. Blair told Parliament that post-war “Iraq would take the path of unity, democracy and human rights”. The truth is before us.