How much did he know?

A British inquiry into Iraq threatens Tony Blair’s reputation

How much did he know?By most measures, Tony Blair had a successful political career. As British prime minister, he was respected, if not loved. He won three majority governments and never lost an election. He secured parliamentary approval for an unpopular invasion of Iraq in March 2003. And two years later, when that invasion had resulted in a chaotic and increasingly bloody occupation of the country, he still won his third majority, even as British opposition to the war mounted and factions within his own Labour Party tried to force his resignation. “He has a reputation as a man who made decisions based on what he believed to be right at the time,” Tony Travers, a political analyst at the London School of Economics, told Maclean’s.

Today, retired from British politics but still active as a Middle East envoy for the United States, Russia, the European Union, and the United Nations, Blair is watching that reputation come under threat because of an ongoing inquiry into Britain’s involvement in the Iraq war. Chaired by former civil servant Sir John Chilcot, the inquiry covers the period from 2001 to 2009. Its broad scope includes Britain’s reasons for going to war, how the war was fought, and its legality. Prime Minister Gordon Brown bowed to intense pressure and agreed to hold the inquiry last summer. Hearings began in November. Immediately, Blair’s integrity came under attack.

Sir Jeremy Greenstock, Britain’s former ambassador to the United Nations, told the inquiry he believes the invasion was “legal but of questionable legitimacy.” Sir Christopher Meyer, ambassador to Washington at the time, suggested Blair and then-U.S. president George W. Bush might have “signed in blood” a deal to depose Saddam Hussein as early as April 2002 at Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas. Meyer, however, wasn’t present at the meeting and could only speculate that this is what took place, based on Blair’s language in a speech the next day.

Con Coughlin, executive foreign editor of the Daily Telegraph newspaper and the author of American Ally: Tony Blair and the War on Terror, has described the inquiry as British diplomats’ revenge on Tony Blair. “Like Mrs. Thatcher before him, Mr. Blair was always highly suspicious of where the true loyalties of the Foreign Office lay,” he wrote recently, “and the evidence so far presented at the Chilcot inquiry suggests he was right to do so.” But Blair isn’t helping his own case much. On Dec. 13 he told the BBC he would still have thought it right to topple Saddam even if he had known the Iraqi dictator did not possess weapons of mass destruction. “I mean, obviously you would have to use and deploy different arguments about the nature of the threat,” he added.

In the run-up to the war, facing a hostile public and a reluctant caucus, Blair did not deploy different arguments. “The United Kingdom went to war headlined on the idea that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction that could be used to hit Britain,” says David Brown, a reporter covering the inquiry for the Times of London. In other words, while the argument that the invasion was justified because it liberated an oppressed people or removed a potential security threat might be useful or even valid today, this wasn’t why a majority of British MPs gave Blair their support in March 2003. In fact, British Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth, who was the Labour Party’s deputy chief whip at the time of the vote, said on Dec. 14 that Blair might have lost the vote had the case for war not been based on Saddam’s alleged weapons stockpile.

Blair’s reputation will sink if the inquiry reveals he knew, or should have known, that Saddam did not possess weapons of mass destruction, but that he made a case for war based on their supposed existence anyways. “If the inquiry finds that, it would be absolutely devastating,” says Brown. “It would mean that Tony Blair misled MPs, whose support he needed, as well as the public.” This hasn’t happened yet. But Sir William Ehrman, who was director general of defence and intelligence at the Foreign Office during the invasion, told the inquiry the U.K. received intelligence reports only days before the invasion suggesting Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction might have been “disassembled” and that Iraq might also “lack” warheads capable of spreading chemical agents. Nevertheless, Ehrman said he was surprised when no weapons of mass destruction were found.

The real question the inquiry hopes to discover is whether Tony Blair was surprised as well. How much the former prime minister knew about Saddam’s weapons program before taking his country to war is something only he can answer. Blair will face the inquiry next year.