The Chilcot report, the U.K.’s official inquiry into its participation in the Iraq War, has finally been released after seven years of investigation.
Its executive summary certainly makes former Prime Minister Tony Blair, who led the British push for war, look terrible. According to the report, Blair made statements about Iraq’s nonexistent chemical, biological, and nuclear programs based on “what Mr. Blair believed” rather than the intelligence he had been given. The U.K. went to war despite the fact that “diplomatic options had not been exhausted.” Blair was warned by British intelligence that terrorism would “increase in the event of war, reflecting intensified anti-U.S./anti-Western sentiment in the Muslim world, including among Muslim communities in the West.”
On the other hand, the inquiry explicitly says that it is not “questioning Mr. Blair’s belief” in the case for war — i.e., it is not accusing him of conscious misrepresentations. Blair is already spinning this as an exoneration, saying the report “should lay to rest allegations of bad faith, lies, or deceit.”
But consider that for as long as the Chilcot commission has existed, the U.K. and U.S. intelligence communities have probably fought over the language of the executive summary.
So the place to look for the less adulterated truth about Blair and the U.K. government is in the rest of the report’s 2.6 million words, including footnotes and newly declassified documents.
Consider this July 28, 2002, letter from Blair to George W. Bush. The first thing you’ll notice is its tone: It sounds like an adult trying to placate a heavily armed 8-year-old. “I will be with you, whatever,” Blair writes. “Getting rid of Saddam is the right thing to do.” But, he writes, “Suppose it got militarily tricky.” And suppose “the Iraqis feel ambivalent about being invaded.” Blair suggests Bush not go it alone. “If we win quickly, everyone will be our friend.”
Chillingly naïve stuff. But the most important thing about Blair’s letter is that it’s clearly a response to a British cabinet meeting memorialized in the famous “Downing Street Memo” of July 23, 2002, which was authored just five days before Blair wrote to Bush.
The Downing Street Memo, sometimes called the “smoking gun” document of the Iraq War, was leaked to the U.K.’s Sunday Times in 2005 (and the original has now been declassified as part of the Chilcot report).
According to the Downing Street Memo, the British cabinet — including Blair — was informed by Richard Dearlove, then head of British intelligence, that the U.S. government was being consciously deceptive about its case for war. Dearlove, the memo reads, “reported on his recent talks in Washington. … Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.”
Blair’s letter five days later was obviously his attempt to address the British government’s deepest concerns about Iraq.
So: On July 23, Blair’s cabinet expressed concern about the dishonest case for war. On July 28, Blair wrote to Bush that “I have been told the U.S. thinks [evidence] unnecessary,” but such evidence was crucial if the two leaders were to have any kind of coalition behind them.
Blair’s cabinet thought the best strategy was to create a casus belli by giving Saddam Hussein an ultimatum on letting inspectors into Iraq. Five days later, that’s what Blair suggested to Bush.
So the Blair letter is, among other things, the final proof of the seriousness of the Downing Street Memo, which, if you recall, the mainstream U.S. media ignored and mocked when it was leaked. The memo did not record meaningless D.C. gossip, as pundit Michael Kinsley suggested when it was published in 2005. Instead, it was the basis for the most crucial communication possible between the U.S. president and the U.K. prime minister.