The Week in Politics: Blair's political epitaph may be 'the end justifies the means'

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The Independent Online

"The end justifies the means, doesn't it?" says the typically craggy detective played by Al Pacino in the film Insomnia. He is explaining how he planted evidence on a child molester and killer he knew instinctively was guilty, to ensure he would be convicted.

Watching the film recently, I couldn't help thinking about Tony Blair and those missing weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. I know, I must be a really sad political obsessive if my mind turns to WMD when I'm watching an excellent film. But I kept recalling how, after the full-scale military action ended, the Prime Minister moved the goalposts away from WMD, his casus belli.

He has told us, in effect, that we should be grateful an evil dictator has been removed. He has spoken about finding evidence of "weapons programmes" rather than actual weapons, a clear departure from his pre-war line that Saddam Hussein posed "a current and serious threat". We all knew Iraq had possessed WMD; there is now growing evidence to suggest it had been contained by the "failed" United Nations inspections regime.

My position on Iraq has dismayed the close Blair aides with whom I have discussed it. They thought I would sign up to the war. But I couldn't: I would have supported military action to secure regime change, if Mr Blair had been up front about that as his goal. But I couldn't endorse a war prosecuted on the flimsy and it now turns out, highly selective evidence about an alleged WMD threat.

I have been told many times by Blair aides that he would be proved right about Saddam's weapons and, on some occasions, I started to believe in their confidence. It might still happen, although yesterday's reports from Washington that David Kay, head of the Iraq Survey Group, was standing down is an ominous sign for Downing Street. I was as delighted as the next man that Saddam was captured. Not just because an evil man can be finally brought to justice. I was pleased to see Mr Blair get a morsel of good news, having watched him visibly age during a tumultuous year in politics. But Saddam's capture didn't change my views on the war.

Nor has it altered the minds of Labour MPs, as far as I can gather. As one former cabinet minister told me:"What Tony wanted for Christmas was not Saddam Hussein. It was a bloody great missile with a chemical warhead on it."

The discovery of Saddam was better news for George Bush, who had made little secret of his desire for regime change in Baghdad. It might just turn the tide in his favour for next year's presidential election, if the attacks on allied troops in Iraq subside.

But the pay-off for Mr Blair is more limited because he set so much store on those elusive WMD. As I understand it, Lord Goldsmith, the Attorney General, could not authorise military action on moral or humanitarian ground. So London and Washington alighted upon Saddam's defiance of UN resolutions on weapons as a lowest common denominator. The Commons motion endorsing the war did not mention Saddam's brutal treatment of his people.

With hindsight, Mr Blair should have used regime change as a secondary reason before taking military action rather than after the event; it would surely have blunted some the criticism over the failure to find WMD. And he would not need to argue now that the end justifies the means.

I can imagine Mr Blair's reaction to the continuing carping. He must regard his critics as a pretty ungrateful bunch, as in, "I risked my political neck to get rid of this evil tyrant and a lot of thanks I get for it". As he has said publicly, the key question is whether the world is a better place without Saddam in power. But it is not the only question, and the sceptics are entitled to remind Mr Blair of why, ostensibly, he took the country to war.

We are also told it is time to "move on". What matters now is rebuilding Iraq and handing power back to the Iraqi people. Well, we can all agree with that. But again, it's very convenient for the Prime Minister to shift the focus away from this justification of war.

But, for Mr Blair it is hard to move on too. Probably because he is so tired, he got a bit carried away when he gave an interview to the British Forces Broadcasting Service this week. He over-hyped the Iraq Survey Group's interim report, issued in October, claiming it had "found massive evidence of a huge system of clandestine laboratories, workings by scientists [and] plans to develop long-range ballistic missiles".

This did not impress Hans Blix, the UN's former chief weapons inspector, who said there was no evidence that the laboratories were working on WMD. He said it was "perfectly plausible" Iraq destroyed its weapons in the summer of 1991. "I doubt they were destroyed just before the Americans came or just before the inspections came," he said. "I am 95 or 98 per cent convinced there weren't any WMD when we went in."

However much Mr Blair would like it to, the Iraq issue will not fade. I won't be surprised if he decides to visit our troops there soon. Then in mid-January comes the unfinished business of the Hutton inquiry into the death of the government scientist Dr David Kelly. There is cautious optimism in Downing Street that Lord Hutton may not deliver the ticking time bomb Mr Blair's critics would like to see, and that its impact may be reduced by the passage of time since the detailed evidence was heard this summer. I am not so sure. For Mr Blair, Iraq is the cloud that won't lift, the political epitaph he is desperate to avoid.