We still need to know why Blair went to war when he did

When I commented in question-time after a recent London club discussion dinner about Tony Blair’s pre-Iraq prevarications[1] over the conditions in which he would commit Britain to war, the distinguished speaker (I later learned) murmured to his neighbour that “this chap is obsessed with Iraq”.  Well, maybe I am.  It may be a lot of water under the bridge now, but considering that this was probably the biggest and bloodiest blunder in UK foreign policy since the charge of the Light Brigade, it seems to me that it remains important to discover how and why the disaster occurred.  Too many key questions remain unanswered.

In The Observer of 20 December 2009 Blair’s biographer Dr Anthony Seldon said he didn’t think Tony Blair should apologise for having taken us to war.  Well, I don’t think he should, either;  but I do think he should explain why he did it when he did.  I submitted the following letter to The Observer for publication on the same day, a few hours before leaving for a three-week family holiday in Ethiopia.  I discovered some time later that the letter had been published, essentially unchanged, in the issue of The Observer of 27 December 2009.  The text as submitted reads:


Anthony Seldon (All that I admired about Tony Blair is being destroyed by his lack of humility, Dec 20) criticises Tony Blair for various misjudgements in his handling of the Iraq war, but mysteriously does “not believe that he should apologise for the fact of taking the country to war.”  True, apologising would be meaningless, but Mr Blair clearly owes the Chilcot Inquiry an explanation of his catastrophic decision to join the US in attacking Iraq.

According to the evidence already given to Chilcot, and as Blair had consistently stressed to Bush, it was a condition of UK participation in the war that it must have the prior approval of the Security Council, which Blair manifestly failed to get.  The FCO lawyers had warned that attacking Iraq without UN authority would “amount to the crime of aggression” and the Attorney-General[*] warned until the last moment that the legal justification for war was at best shaky.  Two of Blair’s most senior and trusted advisers have told Chilcot, and must have told Blair at the time, that in their view the weapons inspectors should have been given more time before any resort to military action, as the inspectors themselves had asked.  The military have confirmed that our forces could have disengaged right up to the last moment.  None of the conditions for UK military action stated publicly by Blair on television and elsewhere had been satisfied.  A clear majority of Security Council members and of our EU partners thought the use of force at that time would be premature.

Blair would have had ample justification for holding back.  Was it that he feared bitter accusations of cowardice from Bush and the loss of his matinée idol status with American public opinion?  The Iraq Inquiry, and all of us, including Dr Seldon, are entitled to know why, at the supreme crisis of his political life, our prime minister and a supine Cabinet took our country into an illegal, premature, unnecessary and disastrous war when he could so easily have declined to do so.  All his other blunders, described by Dr Seldon, were relatively insignificant compared with this.

Yours sincerely
Brian Barder (HM Diplomatic Service, 1965–94)
[*] In my letter as submitted and published, I erroneously attributed this warning to the Lord Chancellor instead of the Attorney-General.

I have written previously that evidence to the Chilcot Inquiry suggests that although in his dialogues with President G W Bush, well before military action began, Blair seemingly committed Britain to joining the Americans in using force against Iraq if and when that became necessary and unavoidable, he appears to have attached to that promise the proviso, explicit or implicit, that the use of force must be a last resort, to be undertaken only when all other methods of securing Iraqi disarmament had been tried and had failed, and only if it had been authorised by the UN Security Council as required by the UN Charter under international law.

It’s possible to ask how he could have made even such a qualified promise to a foreign head of state and government without the prior agreement of his Cabinet, and no doubt that question will be put pressingly to him when he testifies to Chilcot.  But as I argued in my letter to The Observer (above), the more important question is surely why Tony Blair agreed to commit Britain to take part in Bush’s war with Iraq when war was manifestly not the last resort;  when the possibility of a peaceful resolution of the problem by allowing the weapons inspectors more time had still not been by any means exhausted;  when UN Security Council authority for the use of force at that time could not be obtained because a clear majority of the Council thought the use of force then would be premature; and when our major EU and other partners and allies were strongly opposed to starting a war at that time.  In other words, not one of Blair’s conditions, apparently communicated in advance to Bush, for joining the US in military action against Iraq had been satisfied when the attack began.  Yet we went to war anyway.


Tony Blair still owes us an explanation.  Only when we get it can we make the final judgements about how it all happened and which of our political and other leaders were more or less to blame.  Then and only then it will be time to move on.  Meanwhile I’m not the only one ‘obsessively’ concerned to get some answers.

[1] Prevarication:  a statement that deviates from or perverts the truth; that is intentionally vague or ambiguous; the deliberate act of deviating from the truth.  [WordWeb]  Nothing to do with delay (procrastination).