Transcript: Press Conference on The Report of the Iraq Inquiry
TONY BLAIR: Questions.
QUESTION: Mr Blair, you say you would take responsibility and you apologise. Two quick questions. One is you have said in the past you would do it again. Would you still stand by that? And secondly, would you reply now through the cameras to the families of the soldiers who died, who said the question they would like to ask you is, ‘Look me in the eye and tell me you did not mislead the nation.’
TONY BLAIR: I can look not just the families of this country but the nation in the eye, and say I did not mislead this country, I made a decision in good faith on the information I had at the time and I believe that it is better that we took that decision. I acknowledge all the problems that came with that decision. I acknowledge the mistakes and accept responsibility for them. What I cannot do and will not do is say I believe we took the wrong decision. I believe I made the right decision and that the world is better and safer as a result of it. Now, many people can disagree with it – that’s their prerogative. But as this report makes clear, and it does – when you go through the report, there were no lies, there was no deceit, there was no deception. But there was a decision and it was a controversial decision – a decision to remove Saddam and a decision to be with America. Now many people would disagree with both of those decisions. Sir John Chilcot came quite close to it this morning. That’s fine, but if you’re going to do that, you have to say what the consequences of the opposite decision would have been. Cause the point about being Prime Minister is you’re the decision maker. You sit in the seat and take the decision and your obligation to the country is to take it as you believe it to be. And all of this stuff about lies and deceit – it’s all a way of getting us to obscure what is the essence of the question. At that time, in March 2003, was that the right decision? And now, as we look back on it 13 years later, would it have been better if we’d taken the opposite decision and what would have been the consequences of that opposite decision? If you can’t answer that question, then you’re a commentator and not a decision maker. So I had to take the decision. And I – you know, sometimes when people talk about this and talk about me in this regard, it’s as if I don’t, almost as if I don’t care about the loss of life or the grief and suffering of the families. Not just the families of our armed forces but the families of all those who have died in Iraq since 2003. But I had to decide, are more people going to suffer, are more people going to die, if we leave this brutal dictator in place, who’d already killed so many people. So that’s the decision I’m afraid.
QUESTION: Andy Bell, Channel 5 News. Tony Blair, you said – you wrote to George Bush in July 2002, nine months before the war, ‘I am with you, whatever.’ Now, that does sound – and it was read by the Americans – like a blank cheque for war.
TONY BLAIR: First of all, it wasn’t –
QUESTION: Did you do enough to disabuse them of their reading of that as a blank cheque for war?
TONY BLAIR: First of all, by the way, as the correspondence not least between Colin Powell and Jack Straw makes clear, they didn’t read it in that way. Neither could they have, because in July 2002, the whole thing I was – the whole purpose of my intervention with the President was to get them to go down the UN route. So after July 2002 comes November’s UN resolution. Had Saddam complied with the UN resolution, that would have been the end of the matter, but he didn’t. But it was absolutely clear. And by the way, I think it’s clear – I think even the words that continue after that statement in the memorandum, I think there is then a ‘but’. And I then explain all the difficulties of why this isn’t like Kosovo and Afghanistan, why if we – proceed with enormous care. And the whole purpose of what I was doing was making it clear I was going to be with the Americans in dealing with this. That was absolutely clear. I said this in evidence to the inquiry. But we needed to go down the UN route.
QUESTION: But the ‘but’ was never ‘I will withdraw my support if you don’t go along with these conditions.’
TONY BLAIR: No, the ‘but’ was that we have to go down the UN route. So if we don’t go down the UN route, I’m not in a position where I can support this.
QUESTION: Can I ask about the binary decision you said that you had to make on the 18th of March 2003? Rageh Omaar, ITV News. You took that decision but the consequences of taking that decision were that if you had pulled back, the Americans would have gone through anyway, our military contribution was irrelevant in getting the job done anyway and by going through with it when you faced a choice between your frustrations with pursuing diplomacy at a blocked UN and effectively pulling the trigger that you had already loaded because you couldn’t keep the troops there indefinitely, was to plunge us, this country, for 14, 15 years of this agony. You could have said, ‘No, I’m going to continue with the UN’ and Saddam would have been gone anyway.
TONY BLAIR: Well hang on a minute. Let’s just – so, let’s just – cause that’s a really, really important point that needs to be dealt with. So let’s just disaggregate that for a moment. So first of all, by the way, our forces did play an important part in removing Saddam. We were absolutely central.
QUESTION: He would have been overthrown anyway with the US –
TONY BLAIR: Right, okay.
QUESTION: [inaudible] US power there.
TONY BLAIR: So, what you’re saying is that we should have – we should have pulled back at that point, we should have let the US do it. I don’t know whether you think we should have been in the aftermath or out of the aftermath as well.
QUESTION: Well, we [inaudible] –
TONY BLAIR:That would have been – that would have been a huge decision for this country to take. At that point, we were the US’s strongest ally, I had actually gone and sought the commitment from our armed forces that they wanted to be part of this, that we should be part of it, and then right at the last minute we were going to pull out and let the other countries go forward. And –
QUESTION: [inaudible] diplomacy had not been exhausted.
TONY BLAIR: Diplomacy had been exhausted, actually, in this sense. There was by then an impasse at the UN. Look, this is familiar to us today. You had Russia on the one side, the US on the other.
QUESTION: You give up. Just say we have to choose war because we can’t continue with a blockage in the UN.
TONY BLAIR: Well you then have to take a decision. And that’s why I say, you know, the problem with this debate on Iraq is once you clear out of the way all the allegations of deceit and so on – and you know I hope people do actually read this report because it makes it clear those allegations can’t be sustained – but at the end, I agree with you. But you’ve got to go back in my shoes as decision maker, and say ‘At that moment, are we going to pull out, leave the US to do it, hoping that they do it, presumably –
QUESTION: Well you said that they were going to go and do it anyway.
TONY BLAIR: Well, yes, okay, they would have done it. But then we’re saying we think it’s the right thing to do but we’re not going to part of it. I think that’s very difficult.
QUESTION: Can I just ask another question?
TONY BLAIR: Sure.
QUESTION: Which is a fundamental point that you raised, which is this rejection as you said of the fact that the invasion was in nowhere in the aftermath not responsible with the terrorism that has gripped Iraq and the region. As you know very well, I mean Al Qaeda seeks what it calls ungoverned spaces in which to spread its hatred and violence. The way that the aftermath was unplanned for, which was – or adequately planned for, in the aftermath of the invasion, which is what the report lays out – ungoverned space was created in Iraq. The military was disbanded, the security forces, the intelligence services – all of it was eviscerated within months. And into that void came Al Qaeda. What is happening in Syria today are being led by the very men who were in the American camps – Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was in Camp Bucca and held there. He grew out of Al Qaeda. So to say that what is happening in Syria today has no links with Iraq is disingenuous, is it not?
TONY BLAIR: Well I’m not saying it’s got no links, but let’s be very clear about this. Okay, you’re completely right – between 2000 and… particularly when the civil war began, in 2004 to 2006, then I agree – Al Qaeda used that, the removal of Saddam in order to move in and to create sectarian tension. But then came the Surge, and the Surge largely succeeded. So what shifted after 2010 when – remember Iraq had an election in 2010, they elected their government then, actually the leading party in that election was one that was essentially secular. After that time, what changed dramatically was Syria. Now you’re right that there are people from Iraq who then went into Syria, but it was in the chaos of Syria – exactly the same point by the way – in the chaos of Syria in that ungovernable space, that’s where ISIS came into being. They headquartered themselves at Raqqa and they then went back over the border into Iraq. Now my point – because you know we’ve had a debate about Syria these last years – my point is I agree, when you leave that space ungovernable, that is where terrorism breeds. But non-intervention can also lead to those spaces being created. Partial intervention can lead to those spaces being created. And the one thing I’ve got to say about this report – and I say this with respect, but it’s the difference between people writing a report and taking decisions – nowhere in this report did they say what they believed would have happened if we had taken the decision they… well they don’t quite advocate it but they imply. Nowhere did they say that. Now, if people are going to say the decision was wrong, they have at least to consider the points that I’m making – that Saddam might have gone back and reconstituted his programme as the Iraq survey group finds and we might have had the same situation in Iraq today as we have in Syria. And let us be clear: in Syria today, more than double the people that died in Iraq have died in Syria, we’ve the worst refugee crisis since World War II, and that is where we didn’t intervene and remove the dictator.
Robert? I’ll just move along the rows, if that’s okay.
QUESTION: You’ve got a fundamental disagreement with Chilcot. I mean, Chilcot says that you went to war when there was no imminent threat from Saddam. He does say that the legal process for authorising the war was unsatisfactory, that there was no proper planning and preparation for the aftermath, the intelligence was flawed, and that our troops were inadequately resourced and therefore put at undue risk.
Now, you’ve said two things today. On the one hand, you have created the impression that you’re apologising. But you also say that you stand by your decision to go to war. So what I’m unclear about – and I suspect people watching this now are unclear about – is, what are you apologising for today?
TONY BLAIR: For the mistakes.
QUESTION: But what mistakes? What are the mistakes that you acknowledge?
TONY BLAIR: The mistakes on planning and process I absolutely acknowledge. And I accept responsibility, and I’m not passing responsibility off to someone else. I accept full responsibility for those mistakes. But it’s not inconsistent with that to still say that I believe we took the right decision. And the difficulty with a report like this is, those two things get mixed up together. And by the way, in the first part of this military campaign, I mean, at one point, I think, again, in his statement released this morning, Sir John says, well, we didn’t achieve our objectives. We – the first part of this campaign was a brilliant military success, and the British troops, by the way, deserve enormous credit for that. What happened afterwards, we know. But the question is, would we be in a better place today if we’d taken the opposite decision? And that’s the point of disagreement.
QUESTION: But you wouldn’t do it again?
TONY BLAIR: I would take the same decision – if I was back in the same place with the same information, I would take the same decision, because obviously that’s the decision I believed was right. All I’m saying today, because obviously, some of the intelligence has turned out to be wrong, the planning wasn’t done properly. I have to accept those criticisms, I accept responsibility for them. But I think people want me to go one step further, and this is my problem; it’s a very fundamental problem, and it’s – I know it causes a lot of difficulty, even with people who might support me otherwise. They say, ‘No, we want you to apologise for the decision.’ I can’t do that. I can’t honestly tell you – and I’m in the Middle East two, three times a month – and I tell you, the roots of this terrorism go so much deeper than what happened in Iraq. We got caught up in the problem in Iraq. And ultimately, if we’re not prepared to take these types of decisions and engage in this way, we will make the world less safe, which is why I believe, in 2013 I think it was, when Parliament had to take the decision on Syria and chemical weapons, we made a fundamental mistake. I mean, I supported the Prime Minister at the time. And Libya shows you – and he very fairly today in his statement accepts how these things are difficult. But we’re not going to be in a better position if Britain absents itself from these decisions and its place in the world.
QUESTION: But Mr Blair, we shied away from intervening militarily in Syria because we did in Iraq. That’s the point.
TONY BLAIR: Well, is it, or is it because we now know how difficult these interventions are? You see, the worry that I have of – from all of this is that the lessons we learn are lessons essentially of political safety and not political strategy. That ultimately – look, these decisions are difficult. I mean, I don’t regret taking the decision. But there’s no doubt about how difficult it’s been, how controversial it’s been, how much it’s overshadowed – I mean, I’m of no significance in this at all, but it obviously overshadows everything people think about me. Of course this is really difficult.
If we had intervened in Syria, it would also have been really difficult, by the way, but in my view, it would have been better if we’d taken the action rather than not. So, look, it’s – this is where, you know, I understand all the criticisms that the report makes of the process, but I do think – and I tried to do this – you know, it’s too long to go into all these things, but there are real lessons of political strategy and military strategy. I don’t see where these are in this report. I don’t see where it tells you, what’s the right capability today to try and defeat this terrorism? What should Britain – what sort of alliances should Britain be constructing in the world today? How does Britain make sure that it leverages its power in the most effective way to defeat this terrorism, given that the countries who are affected by this terrorism are countries of every description, whether they’re aggressive or benign, north or south, pro-Iraq, anti-Iraq? Where does this report tell us what we should do, as decision-makers?
QUESTION: Tony Blair, it’s very clear you stand by your decision. You have finally today apologised to the families who lost loved-ones in the conflict, but this report is a devastating catalogue of the failures of your government, and paints a very clear picture of a Prime Minister who was determined to act with the United States almost come what may. Do you understand the sentiments of some of the families who believe you ought not just to have said sorry a long time ago, but that now, you should face some kind of punishment?
TONY BLAIR: By the way, it’s completely incorrect that I’ve not said sorry before. I’ve always apologised for mistakes in planning, and in the intelligence, even though I’m not actually responsible for the intelligence. But you see, I can’t – it’s true, I took the decision, after 9/11, we should be America’s closest ally. Again, you can disagree with that. I personally think, when you’re fighting this terrorism in the world today, it would be better if Britain today had a really strong, tight relationship with the United States. Now, I personally think, when our Parliament decided not to back President Obama in Syria, we really dealt a blow to that. I’m sorry, but I do. So I – none of that diminishes the pain of those families or my sorrow for them, and sorrow for what they’ve gone through in their suffering. But I can’t –
QUESTION: I mean, Obama says he was proud of that decision.
TONY BLAIR: I know, but I with the greatest respect think – well, that’s a whole other debate. But the fact is, they called upon us as the UK to back them at that point, and we didn’t, and I regret that, although, to be fair to the Prime Minister, he was advocating it.
QUESTION: But do you – what do you say to people who are calling for there to be some kind of consequences for your part in it?
TONY BLAIR: That’s up to them to call for what they want. But I – what I’ve tried to do today is explain why I acted as I did. And, you know, in the end, what more can I do than say to people, this is why I took the decision I did? And if you disagree with me, fine, but please stop saying I was lying or, you know, I had some sort of dishonest or underhand motive. I had the motives I explained, and the reason I can’t depart from the decision is, I look at what’s happening in the world today, and, I’m afraid, do not believe that we are safer today than we were back then.
QUESTION: Bill Neely, NBC News. I just want to pick up on two things you haven’t mentioned, and also on Matt Frei’s earlier point. The report says, basically, you undermined the Security Council before the war, and at the end of the war, the war basically ended in humiliation for British forces in Basra. Do you accept those are damning judgements and have done lasting damage to Britain’s reputation?
And secondly, on Matt’s point on the memo of 28th July, when you wrote that you would be with President Bush whatever. Whatever what, Mr Blair? Whatever the intelligence? Whatever the evidence? Whatever the UN said? What?
TONY BLAIR: No, I was going to be with America in dealing with this. Whatever the political difficulties, whatever problems there were going to be, I was going to put us alongside America in dealing with this, but it had to be done right, which is why the whole point of the 28th July interaction was to persuade the Americans – remember, there were members of the American administration completely opposed to doing this through the UN. I – the enquiry I think does actually say this. I persuaded President Bush to go down the UN route. That was the vital thing we were doing.
Now, I want to – first of all, by the way, I don’t believe British troops were ever humiliated. I think British troops fought with enormous distinction in the south of Iraq.
QUESTION: That word is directly used in the report.
TONY BLAIR: Yeah, well, I’m afraid I profoundly disagree that British troops did anything other than a magnificent job in the south of Iraq, and if you go and talk –
QUESTION: You were making a deal with the very people who were firing on them, in order to stop the war. That was the allegation.
TONY BLAIR: It was – again, I think that was done in 2008, but in any event, you know, those decisions are incredibly difficult. Most of the attacks actually in the south were attacks on British troops. That’s why it was very different from what was happening in Baghdad. So anyway, there can be a debate about that, but I just wanted to place on record – I mean, when I was Prime Minister, all I can say is, I found our armed forces absolutely magnificent; every time they had to do something, they did it, and they did it in a brilliant way, and I won’t accept any criticism of them whatever.
Now, on the UN Security Council, again, this is a really important point. Because we face exactly the same problem today. And I might say in parentheses, you know, the UN Security Council, you can see in Syria how deadlocked it’s been, and I don’t notice President Putin going and seeking UN Security Council authority for the things that he has done. But when it’s deadlocked like that, it – you can’t say your undermining its authority when we had gone back to the UN specifically to get a resolution that gave him one last chance to comply. The Americans wanted to do this military action, by the way, much earlier. The reason it was delayed was because we went through this UN process. So I understand, of course, that we’d have been better politically to have done it with a UN resolution, but by then you had a blockage. You had stalemate.
Yeah? Literally go right – is that all right if we just go round the…
QUESTION: Tom Newton Dunn from The Sun. Mr Blair, you’ve talked entirely so far about the decisions before the war, almost nothing about the decisions in the aftermath and during the occupation period. Commanders on the ground, Chilcot says, urged you to reconsider the strategy. You yourself told George Bush in the letter in June 2003 that we are not geared up for this. It was quite clear at that stage something was going badly wrong on the ground. Why did you not therefore change that strategy, either pull the troops out or surge and reinforce them like the Americans did? Why did you just allow them to continue, which is what led to so many of their deaths?
TONY BLAIR: Well, first of all, I don’t believe that did at all. I mean, if you’d withdrawn the troops, I think that would have been very difficult. There was no need to surge the British troops at that point. We of course did adjust the strategy enormously, and you rightly say, we were in correspondence continually with the Americans. I was saying, particularly after my visit I think in May or June in 2003 in Iraq, we had to shift strategy. We did. We then put a lot more emphasis on building the Iraqi security capability. We made sure that, for example, the electoral process was put in place so that they could have an election as soon as possible. Remember, Iraq was a country that was governed by 20% governing the other 80%. That’s why, in the end, it was never sustainable, and why, had the Arab Spring – when the Arab Spring happened, Saddam had been in power, he would have been subject to the same revolt that was going on elsewhere. But it’s not correct that we didn’t shift strategy, but the enquiry itself says – and we can look out the reference – that they can’t actually identify any other strategies that would have worked, and the reason for that is very simple. You get to a certain point with these terrorist groups where it’s not the planning; it’s the fighting. And that fighting had to be done, and it was done by our troops with enormous courage, and the Americans, and the troops of other nations. Remember, there were 40 nations in this coalition.
QUESTION: Owen Bennett, Huffington Post. Sir John Chilcot said that you warned that military action would increase the threat from Al-Qaeda to the UK and UK interests, and you were warned that an invasion might lead Iraq’s weapons and capabilities falling into the hands of terrorists. If you were warned about that before the invasion, wasn’t that precisely the grounds on which you wanted to reduce Saddam? So surely, knowing that, you would be thinking you were making the situation worse?
TONY BLAIR: No, the warning that they were giving – and it’s important that the Chilcot enquiry makes reference to this – was a warning that, because everyone thought that he did have actual stockpiles, that they could fall into the wrong hands. But that can’t be a reason for not removing him from power; that’s a reason for doing it.
As for the threat to the UK, I accept, again, if the UK stands up in this fight against extremism and terrorism worldwide, if our forces are engaged in this, these people will try and attack us. They’re attacking the French because of what they’ve done in Libya and Mali. Beyond doubt, they will do that. But my point is, they would try and attack us anyway. They’ve attacked the countries who are pro-Iraq and the countries that have nothing to do with Iraq. I mean, where did Belgium fit into anything to do with Iraq? So my point is, I understand, yes, it’s true, if you stand up and you take this action, these terrorists will try and target you, but frankly, they’ll target you anyway, and that can’t be a reason for not taking them on and fighting them.
QUESTION: David Hughes from the Press Association. Given that Chilcot has found there was no imminent threat from Saddam and that the process of the military build-up had been in place long before, how was it that the troops were so poorly equipped? How was it that, for the aftermath, they didn’t have the correct equipment, there were no – not enough helicopters, not enough IED-resistant vehicles in place? And do you accept the resources were far too much – far too stretched trying to fight in both Iraq and Afghanistan?
TONY BLAIR: I don’t accept the latter point. And by the way, when we made that additional commitment to Afghanistan, I was very, very clear, I remember the Cabinet meeting very well, where I said we must not do this unless we can do both missions. And I think you'll find that the report also says there is no occasional what we on, where we were asked to either for more money, for more equipment. For more equipment where we said, no. And both myself and Gordon Brown at the time made it absolutely clear that whatever was requested should be given.
Now I do have to say you know I think we were absolutely prepared for the campaign to remove Saddam because it was brilliantly successful and we should never forget that. That was one – there were two strategic directives okay. One of which, in one of which we succeeded and in one of which we have not. The one on which we succeeded was to remove Saddam and remove him as a threat. The other was to make Iraq free and secure. That's true. They’ve got elections today. They’ve got an elected government. They are a legitimate government. They're fighting terrorism today, but is also true that particularly in that immediate aftermath of removing Saddam; we did not provide the security we had promised yes.
QUESTION: Steven Swinford of the Telegraph. The families who’ve lost loved ones in Iraq are now saying they're prepared to take legal action against you personally. Do you think they're justified in doing that?
TONY BLAIR: I obviously stand by the decision I took and I've explained all of that today. I understand their – and not just their grief, but I understand their anger and their concern. But I need people also to try to put themselves back in my shoes at that time taking that decision, and understand why I took that decision, why I think it’s right, and why I will never ever accept that those troops who got injured or gave their lives in Iraq did so in vain. I believe they ended up fighting after we got rid of Saddam, they were fighting exactly the forces of extremism we see everywhere in the world today and that's why I – even as I sympathise profoundly with the sorrow I cannot accept the implicit nature of the criticism which is that they died in vain.
I do not believe that they did so. In the first six months of this year it's worth just reflecting on this. 3,500 troops, troops of different countries have lost their lives fighting this terrorism, 3,500. This is a battle is going on day in day out round the world. Our troops were involved in that battle and I will never ever accept that in fighting it they fought for a cause that was worthless or in vain.
QUESTION: Alison Little, Daily Express. I'm still not clear what mistakes you actually think you made perhaps you could name two specific things that you wake up in the middle of the night thinking, ‘I really should have done that’ not just general, there were mistakes made, but specific mistakes that you think you made –
TONY BLAIR: Absolutely specific mistakes. The one thing the report actually doesn't do, but I reproach myself for is that I think when you look at what we found. I think now if I was planning such a campaign, I would look far more carefully at the possibility of the link of external people, linking up with internal elements of insurgency or insurrection. Now there were scattered warnings although they’re not really about Iran or Syria, by the way. But that is the fundamental thing that almost made Iraq ungovernable until the surge. The fundamental thing that went wrong it's not complicated. It's absolutely clear.
It's external elements in Iran linking up with sheer extremism from outside Iraq Sunni extremism linking up with Al-Qaeda and then as we now know have been discovered in these last couple of years Syria deliberately sending thousands of people to join the insurgency across the border into Iraq. That is something I think about the whole time. And one of the things that you learn, you learn exactly the same from Syria and Libya is it's when the external elements join up with the internal elements that you get a problem that can be almost ungovernable. And one of the reasons why it's so important actually to learn the lessons for example a military strategy is how do you deal with that. An unfortunate report doesn't really deal with that. Yes?
QUESTION: Jason Groves from the Daily Mail. Jeremy Corbyn today said that you misled MPs pointing to the section in Liverpool says you prosecuted the case with the certainty which was not justified. There’s been a call from the Labour frontbench for you to face prosecution. How do you feel about sort of splitting the Labour party in the way that this decision appears to have done?
TONY BLAIR: The important thing about the decision like this is you take it for the reasons you believe to be right. And by the way there is no misleading of Parliament. And the reporting accepts explicitly that I acted both in good faith and that I genuinely believed the intelligence I was given. And I brought with me in case that I can simply show it to you afterwards rather than reading it all out. If you go back to those joint intelligence committee documents sent to me in March and September, I simply say to any fair minded person go and read the reports. See what was said to me and then tell me if you wouldn't have believed that there was not merely a problem with intent, but an actual developed programme of weapons.
QUESTION: Jeremy Corbyn did?
TONY BLAIR: Well that's Jeremy and –
QUESTION: Can I just very quickly go back to this question –
TONY BLAIR: Sorry, I think otherwise.
QUESTION: Rowena Mason from The Guardian. Can you be more specific about the errors that you are apologising for, the errors of planning and processes, which things happened that you are now sorry for?
TONY BLAIR: I mean I think to the point that I was just making earlier although it's not actually something the enquiry particularly centres on. It's the analysis of the – the analysis pre-conflict of the possibility of external elements linking up with internal elements, but there are things that I've accepted during my statement. You know, I think in retrospect it would’ve been better to have more formal options, papers presented to Cabinet at certain points. I think for sure now you would approach the situation differently and how you interacted with the United States and I accept that as well.
I think there are various process points for example disclosing the attorney general's advice to cabinet would have been simpler and better to have done that. I don't think any of those things would have altered the nature of the decision, but I'm perfectly happy to accept responsibility for them. But I do think at each point of this once you've done that you come back to the decision.
QUESTION: Nick Watt, BBC Newsnight. Can I just ask you you've expressed sorrow for what happened in the most emotional statement I've heard you make on Iraq. But then you say on the fundamentals, you stand by your decision. Can you see why that explains why people don't trust you and why potentially there is this rupture between the political elite and voters that we have a teary Tony Blair saying I feel your pain, but fundamentally, I did nothing wrong. And if I may you say that for us to understand what happened we need to understand how the calculus of risk changed after 9/11?
But you were told then and we know now that there was no link between Saddam Hussein and Al-Qaeda, but there were links between Al-Qaeda and some of the Gulf Arab states who you maintained strong diplomatic relations with when you were Prime Minister and upon whom you've built your business career since then.
TONY BLAIR: First of all, by the way I didn’t, but there anyway secondly. There is actually no just think about this for a moment. There is no inconsistency in expressing my sorrow for those that have lost their lives. My regret and my apology for the mistakes, but still saying I believe the decision was right. There is no inconsistency in that. I understand why that makes – because people and – some people at least angry with me because they want me to say what I can't in all frankness say which is that I think we should have taken a different decision that either we shouldn't have been with the US or we shouldn't have removed Saddam. I can't say that. I don't believe it.
So I think in the end that's – I mean – I'm sorry again if people find that difficult to reconcile. But I spend so much of my time thinking about this issue. I spend so much of my life analysing it. I would be making a concession I didn't believe if I said to you I think if we'd left him there that we'd be better. And I only say when you look at this report and this is the problem with the report like this. For example they say that the Iraq Survey Group findings are significant and they endorsed them. That's going to make a difference to your analysis of the situation. If that report is right, sanctions would have gone. We wouldn't have removed him and he would have been back to doing what he was doing.
Surely, I'm entitled to say if you're telling me the decision’s wrong you got to tell me why either that report is wrong or if it's not wrong surely it makes a difference to your analysis of the decision. So look I've said that already. But the other thing is on the links between AQ and Saddam. It was never our case. There were elements of the American administration that argued that there was a link between Saddam and Al-Qaeda that was never my case. My case is the one I expressed today. It is one I expressed at the time. I think it is still one of the biggest risks we face which is if you allow the proliferation of chemical or biological or nuclear weapons or its technology then the risk is it falls into the hands of these terrorists at some point.
That was our worry. And remember I was taking this decision not 18 months after 9/11. When we'd seen the mass casualties and when we realised that these people could kill more people they would kill more.
QUESTION: Rob Hutton from Bloomberg. Can I just pick you up on something you said just then that you would handle a relationship with America differently? I think one of the things a lot of people felt at the time and since was they looked at your incredibly close relationship with George W. Bush and frankly a lot of people here looked at George W. Bush and said this is not a man that we trust to make these types of decisions. And he seems incredibly gung ho and there's Tony Blair just off going along with him and that seems in many ways to be borne out by the report today that you didn't have the influence that you thought that you were having. What would you do differently and just are you still in contact with George W. Bush? Do you still speak?
TONY BLAIR: By the way I'm in contact with all the former presidents I worked with. But where I was talking about the relationship with the US, I mean very specifically on the planning for the aftermath. I think in retrospect it was clear that that we relied, I relied too much on the assurances that were given and there were obvious real problems within their system. Those problems have been well-documented and well-analysed. I just don't agree with people about the relationship with the US. When I was Prime Minister and we had that very close relationship and I had it with President Clinton then with President Bush.
It was important if I hadn't had that closeness of relationship I don't know that we could have done Kosovo in that way. That really depended into a large degree on my relationship with President Clinton. With President Bush we made a huge difference we got to go down the UN route. So it's no great secret the Vice President in many parts of the administration did not want to do that. President Bush, I think in part of my prompting was the first American President to commit to a Palestinian state. Was the first to agree to publish the roadmap or publish the roadmap despite the strong opposition of the then Israeli government.
In 2005 in the G8, we got American commitments on Africa and indeed on climate change. That would never have been secured without the closeness of that relationship. I mean I – one of the things I believe about this country is in today's world it's got to exert maximum influence and power through its relationships. And I always said you can go back and you can read it. You got America on the one side and Europe on the other. You keep both relations strong and in doing that you'll have a much better ability to influence the world in the way that you want in the interest of your people in the national interest.
And you know that's when, as I say, the majority of European nations were with us in that coalition by the way. It wasn't just Japan and Australia and others. The majority of Europe came with us. So this relationship with America – you know they say in their report by the way and I just wanted to pick this up because again I completely disagree with this – they say well France and Germany have got a strong relationship with America today despite their disagreement at the time. Yeah, their disagreement at the time was a real problem for their relationship. And subsequent leaders had to work very hard to create the relationship with America today.
And I do believe that with this fight against terrorism, we're better to be strongly alongside the US. I think it's necessary for our own security, but you know, other people can take a different view.
QUESTION: Jason Beattie from the Daily Mirror. Do you think in retrospect you were too trusting of the intelligence services and the information they provided to you? And do you think it was a dereliction not to have probed that information more closely and more vigorously? And second, can I come back to Nick's point; one of the findings of the Sir John’s report is he says that the way the case of the war was presented has left his quotes ‘a damaging legacy which is undermining trust in government’. Do you think there are consequences of that kind of you see more recently?
TONY BLAIR: Well look, first of all when the allegations first surfaced that we have falsified or improperly interfered with the intelligence you might remember I agreed to hold the Hutton enquiry. I was putting the government and myself in a position no government or Prime Minister ever put themselves in before in terms of going, giving evidence, being cross-examined. There have been five separate reports. The Butler Enquiry, Foreign Affairs Committee, there's another report and then this one. All of which find and it's actually there in the report that we did not improperly influenced that intelligence.
QUESTION: That isn't my question.
TONY BLAIR: No, but your question was about trust and the – let's be clear the allegation of trust when it comes to me goes very quickly into the allegation you lied about the intelligence is what people say the whole time right. Now, actually if people are being fair and read the report that allegation should be put to rest because it's not true, and it never was true, and it was enquired into again and again and again. Of course if people think the Prime Minister of the day has lied to them about intelligence, it's going to damage trust. But I didn't. Now on the intelligence itself, look, one of the sensible, one of the areas of report I do agree with are all the recommendations around intelligence.
There are people better qualified than me to explain why these recommendations are sensible. That is absolutely right and we can learn the lessons from that. Anything I say to you is I obviously relied on the information I was given, and I will never criticise our intelligence people because they do a fantastic job for this country.
QUESTION: Lucy Fisher from the The Times. Jonathan Powell and David Manning urged you to remove the phrase 'I will be with you whatever’ from the key memo to George W. Bush. Given that you had been warned that that phrase that pledge went too far and the significance of it. Isn't it disingenuous to claim that it wouldn't be a viewed as and it wasn't intended as blank cheque to the US?
TONY BLAIR: Well it's not. And it's not a blank check and wasn't taken as that because by the way the Americans were absolutely clear what we were saying. And if you read the whole of the memo makes it absolutely clear that we were saying we had to go down the UN route. We had to build a broad coalition that I couldn't be sure. I think I actually said at one point I couldn't be sure of the support of Parliament or the Cabinet even. And they were more concerned about whether there were, I think there were earlier words that we use that were taken out.
I think the fact is, yes, of course, everyone was concerned, but I was also concerned to made sure that at that crucial moment in time when I was right on the cusp of this argument in the centre of the American administration do you take the UN route or not I needed to make sure they took the UN route and they did. And by the way there is and the enquiry does note this, there was a conversation after that November resolution when it was made absolutely clear by myself to President Bush and he accepted that if Saddam complies there's no military conflict. So when people say the commitment was unqualified it was absolutely qualified because we went to the UN.
And if Saddam had complied we wouldn't have been in conflict. But one of the things again I ask people to go back and look at it is this absolutely clear. He never had any intention really of complying it. He would have been back to his old tricks if we do allow them to survive. Let me go to the back there. Who's still to come? Yeah.
QUESTION: Henry Mance, Financial Times. You say that this will forever stand over how people view you. Do you see it as increasingly futile to make public interventions on matter of policies given the shadow of Iraq?
TONY BLAIR: People been listening or not listened. I mean it's up to them. I think there's more understanding in the country than you sometimes think of the fact that people know that when you're Prime Minister you have to take decisions. I think the single most important thing is that people understand that we're getting good faith. That is really critical and I think to be fair about it this report makes – this report at no point says I was taking it for reasons other than the reasons I gave or that I took it in bad faith. And that's the thing that damages me or any other political leader. One of the things I sometimes say to people as well is that the time you should trust a politician most is when they're doing what's hardest. You know, when you’re doing what’s easy – most politicians can do that. But I had to take a decision that was really hard, and despite what people may think, I thought about that decision, really, really deeply then. And I go back over it all the time – all the time, I relive it every single day, there’s not a single day that goes by that I don’t think about it. But I always come back to the nature of it. Right to remove him or not, right to be with the US or not, there’s no way – there’s no third way in that. I’m afraid you’re either there or you’re not, and that’s what I had to decide. If people don’t want to listen to anything else I say, then that’s… I can’t help that, I’m afraid. That’s their decision. Yeah?
QUESTION: Mr. Blair, Jim Waterson from Buzzfeed News. Back in 2003, you said that history would be the judge of your decision to invade Iraq. And 13 years on, this is history’s first proper judgement of the decision to invade Iraq. Why is it that you seem to be rejecting some of the key findings, and how do you think history will treat this decision?
TONY BLAIR: Well, history is going to judge Iraq and removing Saddam in 2003, let’s be very clear about this decision. It cut with the grain of what’s happening all over the Middle East. This is why I think when people, you know… I hope in the end, and I believe by the way, that Iraq will stabilise and the Middle East will stabilise, because my analysis of what’s going on in the Middle East is one big struggle to get rid of sectarian religious politics, and replace it with pluralistic, tolerant, religiously tolerant politics, and it’s about the design for rule based economies and not corrupt economies. Now, I think those are the two things that people are struggling for all over the Middle East. Iraq under Saddam had no chance. Iraq today has a chance. So what history ends up deciding about Iraq is going to depend a lot on what happens in the future. But I just ask people to think about this for a moment – all over the Middle East, these regimes have gone. Now what you sometimes find in the West, in the debate, and again the report doesn’t really deal with any of these things, is people say, you know, it’d be better if you kept the dictators in power, because at least then you keep the situation stable. There’s two things we should remember about that. One, there was no stability in Iraq if you were Kurdish or you were Shia, you were subject to brutal, brutal repression. And secondly, that stability’s not going to hold. That’s what the Arab Spring teaches you, and that’s why in a sense what we did was move ahead of that. That’s not the reason we did it, but when history looks back on this, I… yes, you can go to all the mistakes in foresight and planning and process and all the rest of it, but when you come back to the basic decision, I believe that history will take a different view.
QUESTION: Tom Peck, from The Independent. Today you stand by the decision to invade, and you say that it was right to maintain the relationship with the US. Had you been dealing with a White House that was not committed to an invasion, would you have sought to persuade them that an invasion was the correct thing to do?
TONY BLAIR: Well, that is a very good question, actually. I mean, I think, after 9/11 I was definitely in favour of dealing with a potential for chemical, biological or nuclear devices falling into terrorist hands. So I would definitely have been in favour of doing that, and I think any American president at the time would have been in favour of doing that, by the way. I can’t say how the path of the negotiation would have been different. I still think, you know, remember the first military action I ever took was with President Clinton in Iraq. And it was after that action that it became the official policy of the American government to change the regime in Iraq, that’s one of the tensions in policy making between ourselves and the Americans all the way through. Their policy was regime change, that wasn’t our policy. Our policy was the security aspect. So I don’t, I can’t… I can’t be sure, but the one thing I know, there are a lot of criticisms of President Bush, obviously, but, you know… the… the world is subject to this terrorism and violence, which is essentially what happened to us in Iraq. It happened to us in Afghanistan. It’s happening the world over, and I don’t think we’ve got the right strategy yet to deal with it, and I think what’s important is that we learn the lessons, both of the Bush period of policy making but also of the last eight years as well. And, the consequences of the Arab Spring in Libya and Syria. So I don’t know how it would turn out with a different American president. But I was facing the situation I was.
QUESTION: William James from Reuters. You asked yourself, today – sorry, you asked people today to put themselves in your shoes as Prime Minister. If I could just turn that on its head and ask you to put yourself in the shoes of an Iraqi citizen who has seen swathes of the country overtaken by Islamic State, 150,000 civilian deaths, regular bombings like the one that killed 250 people this week – would you still say, be able to say that they’re better off?
TONY BLAIR: Well, you should let the Iraqis speak for themselves in this, and I think what you’ll find is that some will say no, but if you’re a Kurd, if you’re down in the south, I think you will find a different perspective. I think, you know, one of the things that is strange about this situation – is there was a very strong statement put out by the aide to the President of Iraq today, saying why he thought Iraq was better off as a result of this. And I just make the point that, look at Syria, and look at Iraq. In Iraq, you’ve got a government that’s fighting the terrorism. And they’re doing so, okay, with whatever difficulty, but they are, and one of the reasons for this, these terrible attacks like the one earlier in the week, is precisely because the Iraqi government, with American and other support, is gradually squeezing them back and out of Iraq. They’ve lost something like 50 percent, I think, of their territory in Iraq. So I… that is, again, something that will develop over time, but it’s important that if people say what Iraq is like, they put both sides of the situation today. I know from the many messages that I’ve received from Iraq, and I keep in touch with people there, yes, there will be some people who strongly disagree with what we’ve done, but there will be other people who say no, despite all the difficulties, it was the right thing to do. We’ve got three more to go, I’ll come back, Nick, in one second at the end.
QUESTION: Thank you, Nic Robertson from CNN and thank you for taking all these questions. The inquiry said you overestimated your ability to influence American decision making. Yes, you were able to get them to move towards the UN council in the first case, but when push came to shove and the second Security Council resolution loomed large, were you really able there to use your influence? Do you recognise what the inquiry says, that you did overestimate your ability to influence? And I just want to add a second question, if I may. We’ve heard you talk a lot about how you had to make the decision, I had to make the decision, I had to do this. The inquiry is implicit that there were times when you should, could have shared more information with your colleagues, broadened your decision making. Do you recognise that about yourself?
TONY BLAIR: On the second point, I mean, yes, I think there are times when that would have been sensible, although… this was the continual discussion with all my colleagues. But I agree that the, it might have been, in retrospect, better if we’d had a measure of formality in some of the papers presented and so on. I accept that. But I… I mean, it was impossible to be in the Cabinet at the time and we were discussing this literally every – 26 times, I think we discussed it in Cabinet. And a lot of these were detailed discussions. I didn’t overestimate my influence with the US, by the way. I mean, I was completely realistic. We were a junior partner. 95 percent of the assets in the Iraqi mission were American. But I thought it was important, and remember, as I keep going back to the time, I – my worry after 9/11 was that America decided it was going to go on its own, without a coalition, and go after the people that had caused this destruction in their country. You’ve really got to go back to that time and feel that atmosphere, and one of the reasons why I wanted America to recognise us as a strong, reliable ally, that’s why I used words like, ‘I’m going to be with you come what may’, not unconditionally and unqualified, I couldn’t do that. But I wanted them to know, you’ve got someone who’s alongside you here. Precisely because I wanted them to build a coalition, and that coalition actually held together well in Afghanistan. Now when it came to Iraq, I pulled them into the UN process precisely to build the coalition. We could have built it then. When we came to the second resolution, I again persuaded that – President Bush didn’t want to give any more time at that point. I got – I actually constructed with the inspectors six tests that he had to comply with. And the Americans did not want that…resolution, but in the end what they said was, ‘Okay, but there’s got to be an ultimatum if he doesn’t comply. We can’t keep our troops down there and let him carry on giving a little bit of compliance when he felt the threat was there and withdrawing when he didn’t. And in the end we couldn’t get agreement to that. And it’s not that I didn’t try, so I had real influence but of course they were always going to be the senior partner. And one of the difficult questions for Britain now is…given that you’re going to be in these types of missions, what is the likelihood of British military participation in the world today? It’s almost certainly. You know, the Falklands is a totally exceptional set of circumstances. The likelihood is you’re going to be facing not an attack on your own territory, but you’re going to be working in coalition with others, probably under the leadership of the United States, in these countries where this Islamist terrorism exists. You know you – we’ve got to decide as a country how we – you know because that means you’re a part of a coalition and you’re – you’re a junior partner in that coalition, that is inevitable.
QUESTION: But you overestimated your ability.
TONY BLAIR: I don’t – I very – I had a very clear estimation of my own influence and I used it insofar as I possibly could. But you have to understand the American administration were absolutely clear what they wanted to – and so in the end as I say the decision is – we with them or not? I don’t—you know, I found it difficult to follow particularly what Sir John Chilcot said this morning…where I thought he struck a different tone than part of the report. I found it difficult whether he was actually saying, ‘well you shouldn’t have gone with America’; or whether he was saying, ‘you shouldn’t have gone then’. And I haven’t – I didn’t have the ability to delay at that point. I had to decide. I understand what he’s saying but – and I thought about that at the time too but in the end if someone is going to take – I do really feel this and I’ve got the right to say this at least that if someone is going to say, ‘the decision’s wrong,’ they’ve got to spell out what they say would have happened if I’d taken the opposite decision. And what isn’t fair is to say, ‘well I don’t think you shouldn’t have done that,’ but, ‘I don’t take a view on what you should have done’. I’m afraid that’s not decision making.
QUESTION: Enrico Franceschini, La Republica, Italy. Mr. Blair, do you feel more anguished or relieved or perhaps worried by this report?
TONY BLAIR: Look, this is an issue which I think about all the time and people ask me about it all the time. I don’t suppose this report will bring this issue to an end, but it should – as I say – put to rest some of the allegations. The allegations around good faith. And I think this is important, you know I – people can criticize me for the planning. And they can criticize the decision. But if people are being fair, and they read this report, they should not from now on, criticize good faith. But, you know, we live in a political world. Okay, Nick, now you get the last question here.
QUESTION: Thank you, Nick Watt BBC Newsnight, and thank you for being generous and taking the time in taking a second question. Can I ask you on this question of trust? One of your big themes today is that Britain needs to stand tall in the world of multi-lateral institutions punching above its weight, but surely that vision is crumbling before your eyes after the vote in the referendum? And is there not a part of you that thinks that the reason for that vote is this disconnect between the political elite and voters – that the voters don’t trust the political elite? Do you not think that we could trace that back to the 18th of March, 2003 when a British Prime Minister took this country to war on a prospectus which – diplomatically speaking – turned out to have a few question marks over it? And you may have acted in good faith, you may not have done that knowingly, you may not have lied, but nevertheless, people saw their Prime Minister taking to war on a prospectus that now has question marks on it, and they don’t trust you, and they don’t trust your successors.
TONY BLAIR: Well I do – I think – that’s a bit of a stretch to go to the European referendum back to this – I mean… you know the question of trust in politics is a whole other issue. I think you’re entitled to two things, as a member of the public with your public leaders. I think you’re entitled to them taking the decisions in good faith, but I also think you’re entitled to have them take the decisions. And – you know I said to you earlier – I think that the time you should trust the politicians most is when they’re doing what’s the least popular. Because – unless they’re a fool – they’re doing it because they believe in it. I believe the disconnect between politicians and the public is got a lot of different aspects and dimensions to it – it’s a topic for another day that – you know, if you – if you were concerned that your Prime Minister took this decision on the basis that they knew was false or they took this decision for reasons that had nothing to do with the reasons they gave, you would be entitled to mistrust them deeply. But this report makes it clear whatever criticisms you make or whether you agree or disagree with the decision – I did it for the reasons I said that we did it. And I stand by it today for those reasons – again, today. And, you know, I understand why Sir John or his colleagues may take a different point of view. But I was the elected Prime Minister at the time, and I really do believe ultimately, it’s better that you have your Prime Minister’s in a position where they take the decisions rather than duck them.
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Mr Blair answered reporters questions at a press conference at Admiralty House after the publication of the Report of the Iraq Inquiry.
Copyright © July 2016 by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change
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