Persuasive he may be, but devil lurks in the detail he ignored

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The Independent Online

Questioned gently, but lengthily, Tony Blair was as persuasive as ever on every detail of Iraq and wholly unconvincing as to why he felt compelled to stand "shoulder to shoulder" with President Bush in the first place.

Blair got to the crux of the matter within minutes of his appearance: "We had taken the decision that Saddam had to be confronted post-September 11th." Who had taken that decision and why? What had Saddam to do with September 11th? These are key questions and yet the bulk of yesterday's hearing focused on the issues that only became important retrospectively, those relating to whether Blair lied or broke the law. On the whole he handled those questions with ease. He is used to answering them by now.

His original judgement deserved greater probing. There was no connection between September 11th and Iraq. There were no wider links between al-Qa'ida and Saddam. Yet in the immediate aftermath, the thoughts of President Bush, and therefore those of Blair, turned to Iraq.

Blair's interrogators did not seem especially interested in this sequence. Yet his decision to agree with Bush, that September 11th meant the policy towards Iraq must change, was the only one of significance that he took. After that the US was in charge.

Blair stressed repeatedly yesterday that after September 11th "the mindset in the United States in relation to Iraq changed dramatically ... and mine did too". How convenient that he made the same irrational leap, enabling him to maintain his close alliance with a Republican President. As he put it when questioned about his private meeting with President Bush at Crawford in the spring of 2002: "It is important for a British Prime Minister to establish a strong and close relationship with the President of the United States." Blair followed orthodoxy with a convenient passion. At a later point yesterday Blair added: "In my view and the view of the US we could not take the risk of Saddam reconstituting his WMD." Once more his view accorded precisely with the world's only superpower. It always did.

After Blair had decided that he shared Bush's worldview the rest followed inevitably. He had a case to make and he made it. He was right to point out yesterday that it was the BBC that made the dossier on WMD seem more significant than it was at the time of publication and that in its inaccurate reporting made integrity rather than judgement the issue. Nonetheless Blair inadvertently confirmed he was not especially bothered by the details, but the arguments they conveyed. He was asked if he understood the difference between long-range weapons and battlefield weapons. His response revealed much about his leadership style.

"I didn't focus on it a great deal."

On Iraq if details got in the way he tended to ignore them. But because the Committee focused on his integrity he was not challenged very much on the key question in relation to the dossier: Why was the intelligence so wrong? Instead Blair shifted his case retrospectively to suggest that the war was instigated to prevent Saddam from "reconstituting" his WMD, not an argument made at the time.

The rest of the micro questioning and answers were irrelevant. Blair persuaded Bush to go to the UN, but only in the hope that they would get international backing for military force, which they both believed was almost inevitable. Blair admitted yesterday that "given the UN's record on these matters" a diplomatic solution was never likely, and I sense the best he had hoped for was UN support for war, which would have given him more protection in domestic politics.

But in siding with Bush from the beginning he knew he would get a majority in the Commons, as the Conservative leadership was more gung-ho than him. He knew the cabinet would back him. He was being hailed in most newspapers for his boldness. Hans Blix could have pleaded for more time to hunt for weapons. It did not matter. By the end of 2002 US and British troops were in position and Bush wanted to invade in March 2003. Bush was willing to act without Britain, but Blair was never going to pull back at that point or any point. The troops were there and were not going to return without a conflict having taken place.

Forming a close alliance with Bush must have seemed the least risky course after September 11th, but as Blair said in the most revealing sentence of yesterday's hearing: "It all depends what happens afterwards how people regard your behaviour at the time."

Blair made a misjudgement and followed the consequences with crusading conviction. Future leaders take note: following the orthodox course can lead to even greater unpopularity if the end result is perceived as a deadly mistake.