Tony Blair Stands By Iraq War As 10th Anniversary Approaches

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TONY BLAIR IRAQ WAR
U.S. President George W. Bush (R) and British Prime Minister Tony Blair hold a press conference December 7, 2006 in Washington, D.C. Bush and Blair had a breakfast meeting to discuss the current situation in Iraq. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images) | Getty

“I’ve long since given up trying to persuade people it was the right decision,” Tony Blair says now. But this does not mean the former prime minister who led Britain to war in Iraq believes he was wrong.

His successors at the top of the Labour Party have attempted to shake-off the toxic legacy of the invasion, but Blair holds firm to his belief that toppling Saddam was the right thing to do.

Ten years on, a majority of the British people now believe Blair's eager support of U.S. President George W. Bush was a mistake. And most believe Blair deliberately set out to mislead them in order to gain their support for the invasion.

He has been awarded the congressional gold medal and hailed a hero in Washington. But his reputation in the UK, where he waltzed to three easy election victories and governed for 10 years, will be forever haunted by his decision to commit 45,000 British troops to the American-led war.

In a BBC interview conducted to mark the anniversary, Blair said despite British public opinion, he firmly believes it was the right course of action. "In the end you are elected as prime minister to make these decisions," he said.

"The question is, supposing I had taken the opposite decision?" he continued. "Sometimes what happens in politics, and unfortunately these things get mixed up with allegations of deceit and lying and so on, in the end sometimes you come to a decision where whichever choice you take the consequences are difficult and the choice is ugly. This was one such case.

"If we hadn't removed Saddam from power just think, for example, what would be happening if these Arab revolutions were continuing now and Saddam, who's probably 20 times as bad as Assad in Syria, was trying to suppress an uprising in Iraq? Think of the consequences of leaving that regime in power."

He added, "So when you say 'do you think of the loss of life since 2003,' of course I do, you would have to be inhumane not to, but think of what would have happened if he had been left there."

Blair's conviction that the war was right is a view shared by Alistair Campbell, the ex-prime minister's former long-serving communications director whose power within government led him to be known as "the real deputy prime minister." Campbell helped sell the war to a skeptical British public.

“I think that Britain, far from beating ourselves up about this, should be really proud of the role we played in changing Iraq from what it was to what it is becoming, and the impact that is having on the region,” Campbell said in 2010.

Like Blair, despite whatever else he has done, Campbell's legacy will be the war. As Downing Street’s top spinner, Campbell will be forever linked to the “dodgy dossier” of faulty intelligence presented to the public, including the infamous claim that Saddam could deploy weapons of mass destruction at 45 minutes, in order to persuade them to back the invasion.

Gordon Brown, Blair’s successor as prime minister, has also defended his decision to support the invasion. Brown, who was chancellor at the time and wielded power within government equal to Blair, could have stopped the war if he had wanted to. But Brown kept his head down as Bush and Blair plotted to topple Saddam. "These were difficult decisions,” he acknowledged during his appearance before Chilcot inquiry into the war in 2010 . "I believe they were the right decisions for the right reasons."

However, not all leading figures in Blair’s cabinet still believe the war was right. And many have said they regret their decision to vote in favour -- following an impassioned plea from the then prime minister -- in the crunch February 2003 House of Commons decision that authorised the invasion.

Jack Straw, the British foreign secretary at the time of the invasion, has admitted he was sceptical of the war and considered resigning. His resignation would have likely stopped British involvement in the war and could have toppled Blair’s government. However, he said he came to the conclusion the war was "right and inevitable."

Late last year Straw said the war, and his support for it, was a mistake. “I deeply regret it, and I regret even more the fact the whole basis on which we want to war turned out to be wrong,” he said.

And in early March of this year, John Prescott, Blair’s deputy prime minister, said the war which he supported at the time “cannot be justified."

"And I have to be part in that -- I can't just disown it,” he said. “I go through my thoughts trying to justify it, but that's ... it cannot be justified as an intervention."

The war has also had a lasting effect on Britain’s politically impartial civil service. For Sir Christopher Meyer, London’s man in Washington in the run-up to the invasion, the memories remain raw.

"With his Manichean, black and white view of the world, Mr. Blair was in his way more neo-con than the neo-cons, more evangelical than the American Christian Right,” he said.

Meyer said the former Labour leader's "unquestioning support" for the U.S. president "eliminated what should have been salutary British influence over American decision-making."

The Labour Party has been coming to terms with the war for a decade. Ed Miliband, the party's current leader, was not in parliament at the time MPs voted on the war.

In 2010, after the party lost power following 13 years in government, Miliband, who was battling his brother David to succeed Brown as leader, said the way Britain decided to go to war led to "a catastrophic loss of trust” in the party and that its MPs had to learn "painful truths" about where they had gone astray.

In an attempt to draw a line under the conflict, he used his victory speech to concede Blair had been wrong. “I do believe we were wrong, wrong to take Britain to war and we need to be honest about that,” he said.

Ed Balls, who would be chancellor in a Labour government and was a behind-the-scenes political operative in 2003, has not had to reflect on his own vote. But he has admitted his party was wrong. The former aide to Brown also used the 2010 leadership election to admit the war was “a mistake."

“It was an error for which we as a country paid a heavy price, and for which many people paid with their lives,” he said.

For others the decision to repudiate the war has come harder. Douglas Alexander, now Labour’s foreign affairs spokesman, has warned against arming the Syrian opposition. He was a junior minister in 2003 and voted in favour of the war. In an interview with The Guardian last month Alexander said the war had cast a “long shadow” over the party.

“If you look at the ledger with a 10-year perspective, the negatives outweigh the positives,” he said.

And Harriet Harman, the Labour party’s deputy leader and solicitor general (deputy attorney general) in 2003, has also said she would not have voted for the war if she knew then what she knows now.

"I said I voted for the war on the basis there were weapons of mass destruction and that that was a mistaken belief and I had to acknowledge that,” she said in 2007.

The Labour Party may be able to rid itself of the stain of Iraq. But Blair, the party's most successful leader, will not. As David Miliband, Blair's former aide, recently observed: "George Bush was the worst thing ever to happen to Tony Blair."

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