Tony Blair lied to justify the 2003 war on Iraq—and wanted regime change there since at least 2001. The Chilcot report into the war, published last week, is explosive.
Its findings—and the evidence they are based on—are the strongest proof that Blair lied and plotted to launch the war that devastated Iraq.
Chilcot said judgements about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) “were presented with a certainty that was not justified”. This careful and legalistic language is dynamite.
Yet the report does not accuse Blair of lying or even exaggerating. Instead it suggests that Blair’s decision to join the US in invading Iraq was a mistaken “matter of judgement”. It even accepts that Blair genuinely believed that Iraq had WMDs.
Yet the meat of the report—and the evidence submitted to the inquiry—contradicts this.
It shows how Blair, along with some of his close ministers, civil servants and the intelligence services, set out to manufacture a case for war.
Blair had been contemplating regime change in Iraq since at least 2001. He said as much when he gave evidence to the Chilcot Inquiry in 2011.
Blair said, “There were two ways of dealing with it—change of heart or change of regime. That was more or less as it remained throughout.”
In April 2002 Blair met then US president George Bush for private talks at Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas. The two used the meeting to work out how they could start a war in Iraq.
Evidence submitted to Chilcot shows Blair spent the weeks in the run-up to the meeting figuring out a plan.
Blair sent a memo to one of his advisers in March telling him that he needed to work out a “strategy” ahead of Crawford.
Blair said, “The persuasion job on this seems very tough. My own side are worried. Public opinion is fragile. International opinion—as I found at the EU—is pretty sceptical.
“Yet from a centre-left perspective, the case should be obvious. Saddam’s regime is a brutal, oppressive military dictatorship. So why isn’t it? Because people believe we are only doing it to support the US. And the immediate WMD problems don’t seem obviously worse than 3 years ago.”
He finished, “We have to re-order our story and message. Increasingly, I think it should be about the nature of the regime.”
Blair’s foreign secretary Jack Straw was in on the plot. In a memo to Blair on 25 March he voiced concern that most Labour MPs would oppose military action against Iraq.
Straw said, “Colleagues know that Saddam and the Iraqi regime are bad. But we have a long way to go to convince them as to
“a) The scale of the threat from Iraq and why this has got worse recently.
“b) What distinguishes the Iraqi threat from that of eg Iran or North Korea.
“c) the justification for any military action in terms of international law.”
Tellingly, he added, “The whole case against Iraq and in favour (if necessary) of military action needs to be narrated with reference to international law.”
Chilcot said the Crawford meeting resulted in a “profound change in UK thinking”, with Blair accepting “the possibility that the UK might participate in a military invasion of Iraq”.
It was actually where Blair persuaded Bush to take a strategy that Chilcot referred to as “the UN route”. This was designed to ensure Britain’s involvement in the war.
It involved demanding that Saddam Hussein allowed weapons inspectors into Iraq, then seeking permission from the UN Security Council to invade if inspectors were blocked.
It was never meant as an alternative to invasion—but was sold to Bush as the pathway to war.
The threat from Iraq was viewed as less serious than that from other key countries of concern—Iran, Libya and North Korea.”The Chilcot report
Building up support for that war was a crucial part of Blair’s strategy. He wanted to argue that Iraq had WMDs—and posed a real and immediate threat.
To do this, Blair and his spin doctor Alastair Campbell commissioned a dossier on Iraq’s WMDs from Britain’s Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC).
The Chilcot report acknowledges that this dossier, published in September 2002, was intended to “make the case” for war.
The intelligence used was false which is why it was dubbed the “dodgy” dossier. But it is also controversial for having been “sexed up”—sensationalised—by Campbell.
An entire chapter of the report is given over to looking at how the dossier was put together.
It shows that Campbell had significant influence over the structure and language used.
And it describes several examples of Campbell suggesting draft changes and asking for rewrites before the dossier was published.
In his published diaries Campbell recalled a meeting with JIC chair John Scarlett “to go through what we needed to do communications wise to set the scene for Iraq, e.g. a WMD paper and other papers about Saddam”.
At first the dossier was to focus on WMDs in four countries—North Korea, Iran, Libya and Iraq. Bush had described these as an “axis of evil” in a speech that January.
But as the Chilcot report explained, “The threat from Iraq was viewed as less serious than that from other key countries of concern—Iran, Libya and North Korea.”
Straw was worried. After reading a draft on 8 March he commented, “Good, but should not Iraq be first and also have more text? The paper has to show why there is an exceptional threat from Iraq. It does not quite do this yet.”
This is because Iraq did not pose an “exceptional threat”.
Scarlett, who was in charge of producing the dossier and apparently neutral, had a solution.
In a memo dated 15 March he commented, “The foreign secretary felt that an earlier draft did not demonstrate why Iraq posed a greater threat than other countries of concern.
“You may still wish to consider whether more impact could be achieved if the paper only covered Iraq. This would have the benefit of obscuring the fact that in terms of WMD, Iraq is not that exceptional.”
In the meantime Blair and Bush followed their strategy in the UN as best they could. In the end they went to war without the UN Security Council resolution Blair wanted to justify it.
In the weeks before the invasion UN weapons inspector Hans Blix suggested that Iraq may not have the WMDs that Blair insisted were there.
Another inspector, Mohammed El Baradei, said there was no evidence that Iraq was building nuclear weapons. Blair ignored them both.
Chilcot’s report is clear that Blair’s decision to go to war at that point was wrong. It said, “Diplomatic options had not been exhausted. The point had not been reached where military action was the last resort.”
But the report starts to excuse Blair, even pinning some of the blame for the invasion on Iraq.
“Iraq had acted suspiciously over many years,” it said. This “led to the inferences drawn by the government and the intelligence community that it had been seeking to protect concealed WMD assets”.
The report also seems to accept the idea that Blair had been looking for an alternative to regime change.
“The US was explicitly seeking to achieve a change of regime; the UK to achieve the disarmament of Iraq, as required by UN Security Council resolutions,” it said.
It squares the circle by explaining, “The belief that the best way to influence US policy towards the direction preferred by the UK was to commit full and unqualified support, and seek to persuade from the inside.”
The report is even softer on Straw and Campbell. It seems to take at face value Straw’s claims that his memos to Blair were all about finding a “peaceful solution”.
Even more remarkably, the report finds that Campbell’s control over the JIC’s dodgy dossier was not evidence “that No.10 improperly influenced the text”.
If the conclusions seem wilfully blind to what the evidence shows, that’s probably because they are.
The Chilcot team—made up of three knights and a baroness—was seen as a safe pair of hands to deal with the inquiry. One of them once wrote a speech for Blair justifying “humanitarian intervention”—in other words, war. John Chilcot has worked for both MI5 and MI6.
One of their major worries was that the war—particularly the dodgy dossier—had “produced a damaging legacy”. It had undermined “trust and confidence in government statements, particularly those which rely on intelligence which cannot be independently verified”.
The point of the inquiry was to show that the government and the state could “learn lessons” from the disaster and regain people’s trust.
Finding that Blair deliberately lied to take Britain to war—and that government minsters, civil servants and the intelligence services colluded—doesn’t help that.
Instead the report found that combining intelligence with the government’s “interpretation and presentation of the evidence in order to make the case for policy action” in the dodgy dossier was “a mistake”.
And it says the JIC should have carried out a “formal reassessment” of Iraq’s WMDs before the war started. But it stops there.
The report is damning for Blair—in as gentle and apologetic a way as possible—for what it calls his poor judgement and mistakes. Everyone else just about gets away with it. Sort of.
But the report tells us what many knew already—the Iraq war was a disaster and, along with the US, the British state is to blame.
Its authors can’t hide that.