Former British prime minister Tony Blair showed up today for what has been called his Judgment Day hearing for leading Britain into the Iraq war and said that even though no weapons of mass destruction were ever found, going to war against Saddam Hussein was a decision he "frankly would take again."
Blair arrived with heavy security two hours ahead of schedule to avoid protestors gathered near Parliament Square. A small crowd shouted, "Tony Blair, War Criminal!" and carried placards made to look like they were splattered with blood and read: "B-LIAR!"
As he sat in front of the five-member panel, made up of four knights and a baroness, the former prime minister was visible nervous, his hands shaking and his face taught. His introductory remarks included none of the confident rhetoric he is known for delivering.
But he soon warmed to the debate, conceding the floor to the chair of the committee when asked. While he never grew defensive, neither did he waver in conveying his conviction that his actions came from a morally justifiable place and that he would make many of the same decisions today.
Early on in the questioning Blair made it clear that 9/11 had a dramatic and ultimately decisive effect on the length he was willing to go to support U.S. efforts to remove Saddam Hussein from power.
"Up to Sept. 11 we thought he was a risk, but we thought it was worth trying to contain it," he said. "The crucial thing after Sept. 11 is that the calculus of risk changed."
Blair maintains that he was right to believe Saddam had weapons of mass destruction because he had used them in the past. That alone was a major and he says, justified component in taking Britain to war.
Blair has been harshly criticized for misleading the public on the WMD issue. On that note, he was clear and unapologetic.
"It is really important to understand the decision I took and frankly would take again. If there was any possibility that he could develop WMD we should stop him. That was my view then, that is my view now."
The Iraq Inquiry - A British Affair
The Iraq Inquiry started last November. So far it has been a polite and very British affair. Blair's testimony is the most anticipated to date. Seats were allocated by ballot and a certain amount of tickets were reserved for family members of the 179 British soldiers killed in Iraq.
Much of his testimony centered on a private meeting that took place between Blair and former U.S. president George Bush in April 2002 on the president's ranch in Crawford, Texas. Blair has been accused of committing troops to the effort even then, almost a year before the U.S. would launch its first attack.
Blair maintains that he did not set any terms for military or financial commitment during the meeting in Crawford. But his testimony suggests he made it clear that no matter the differences in approach, whatever route the U.S. ultimately chose to pursue, the UK would be supportive.
All along Blair has said that the UK supported going "the U.N. route," pursuing through diplomacy and the build up of an international coalition. Blair cast a slightly different light on that today. He said that as early as the meeting in Crawford he felt that,"'If we tried the U.N. route and it failed then my view was it (Saddam) had to be dealt with."
Blair also went to great lengths to make clear his awareness, even at that time, that the international community had a far different perspective than both the U.S. and to a certain degree the United Kingdom.
"Straight after Sept. 11 people came together behind America, but I was aware from the early stages that although the American mindset had changed dramatically, and frankly mine had as well, when I talked to other leaders I did not get the same impression. So one thing I was really anxious to do, because we put together a coalition on Afghanistan, was to put together a coalition again to deal with Saddam Hussein. The U.N. route was not just important for political and legal reasons. It was also important to me because I didn't want America to feel that it had no option but to do it on its own."
Tony Blair's Meeting With George W. Bush
Mr. Blair went on to relay his impression, during that private meeting, that Bush was harboring a deep fear that if the U.S. was not prepared to act in a strong way it would run the risk of sending a disastrous signal out to the rest of the world.
Blair maintained that his readiness to stand by the U.S. was "not a covert position, it was an open position.
"I did not regard 9/11 as an attack on the U.S. I regarded it as an attack on us," he told the committee.
That was the attitude he took with him to the United Nations. The Security Council passed Resolution 1441 in November 2002. It demanded that Iraq immediately provide fully open access to U.N. weapons inspectors. When Saddam Hussein failed to comply, Blair recounted the enormous pressure he was under to secure a second resolution authorizing the use of force.
His Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, and his own attorney general, Lord Peter Goldsmith, had in fact warned him that without such a resolution he would not only lose the support of the international community, but may be engaging in illegal activity.
When asked how Bush regarded securing a second resolution he said, "His view was that this leopard was not going to change his spots. He [Saddam] was always going to be difficult."
"The president's view as that if you can't get a second resolution, because in essence France and Russia were going to say no, then we were going to be faced with a difficult decision which was that if he was in breach of 1441 we should mean what we said."
Ultimately Great Britain and the U.S. would abandon the resolution altogether.
"The real question Tony Blair needs to answer in the end will be at The Hague and before a war crimes tribunal," said Andrew Murray, chairman of Stop the War Coalition. "He is an accomplished actor, but I think most people have long since seen through the script."
Blair faces no kind of legal repercussions for his testimony today. Instead, his appearance is a chance to provide his side of the story to the British Public and perhaps help define, in part, his own legacy.