Blair Defends Iraq War Decision

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Former British Prime Minister faced six hours of questioning Friday about the war in Iraq. Appearing before a panel investigating why the British government decided to join the U.S. in the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Blair defended his decision to go to war against Saddam Hussein.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Britain's former Prime Minister Tony Blair faced six hours of questioning today. The topic: Iraq. He was appearing before a panel investigating why the British government decided to join the 2003 Iraq invasion.

As NPR's Rob Gifford reports, if anyone was expecting contrition or repentance from Blair, they didnt get it.

ROB GIFFORD: It wasnt a trial, but many outside today's inquiry thought that it should be.

(Soundbite of protest)

Unidentified People: Tony Blair to the Hague. Tony Blair to the Hague. Tony Blair...

GIFFORD: Tony Blair to the Hague, they chanted, to face the International Criminal Court. Blair, the consummate politician who seemed so attuned to public opinion when he swept to power in 1997, has become vilified by many for ignoring that same popular opinion and taking the country into a very unpopular war in 2003.

Twenty-nine-year-old Martin Abrams(ph) marched against the war at the time, and he was back today.

Mr. MARTIN ABRAMS (Activist): He's essentially a war criminal. He led us into a war full of lies. He's caused the deaths of 179 British troops and countless more Iraqis.

GIFFORD: Inside, Blair launched a robust defense of his decisions before the five-member panel, saying he would make the same decisions all over again. He spent a lot of the morning talking about 9/11, how it changed everything, he said, and especially the risk that a leader like Saddam Hussein, with a track record of manufacturing weapons of mass destruction, might link up with an organization like al-Qaida.

Mr. TONY BLAIR (Former Prime Minister): Well, this isnt about a lie, or a conspiracy, or a deceit, or a deception, it's a decision. And the decision I had to take was, given Saddam's history, given his use of chemical weapons, given the over one million people whose deaths he caused, given 10 years of breaking U.N. resolutions, could we take the risk?

GIFFORD: Blair admitted that his government failed to anticipate some of the problems of the aftermath of the Iraq invasion, in two areas especially.

Mr. BLAIR: One was, as I say, the absence of the properly functioning civil (unintelligible) infrastructure. And, of course, the second thing, which is the single most important element of this whole business of what happened afterward, people did not think that al-Qaida and Iran would play the role that they did.

GIFFORD: He said there isnt a day that goes by when he doesnt think about the massive responsibility that he bears. But, in the end, he was briefly heckled when asked if he had any regrets.

Mr. BLAIR: No regrets. Responsibility, but not a regret for removing Saddam Hussein.

Unidentified Man #1: Come on.

Mr. BLAIR: I think he was...

Unidentified Man #1: (unintelligible)

Unidentified Man #2: Be quiet, please.

GIFFORD: As he left the forum, Tony Blair was booed by some in the public gallery who shouted: You're a liar and a murderer. Valerie O'Neal(ph) watched the testimony. Her son Chris was killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq in 2007.

Ms. VALERIE O'NEAL: Give that man an Oscar because his performance in there, it should be on the red carpet. He's blaming everybody but himself. He will not take any of the blame himself.

GIFFORD: Blair was not without his supporters, though. Denis MacShane, who was in the prime minister's cabinet in 2003, pointed out that the decision to go to war was approved by the British Parliament.

Mr. DENIS MACSHANE (Member, British Parliament): There were hundreds of people in parliament who voted. I was Europe minister. There wasnt a single European leader or intelligence service at the time who doubted that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. We know better now, but are we making a judgment today in 2010?

GIFFORD: The inquiry has no legal power to indict Blair or anyone else, but Rosemary Hollis of City University in London, who's just published book called "Britain and the Middle East in the 9/11 Era," says the process has still been worthwhile.

Dr. ROSEMARY HOLLIS (Author, "Britain and the Middle East in the 9/11 Era"): I think from the point of view of the British public, it's quite important that this inquiry has taken place and that the former prime minister be seen to be put on the spot. There is a great sense of unfinished business, a great sense that he hasnt been held accountable. And even if he's not taken to court and charged with an illegal act, there will have at least have been a sense that he's had to explain himself.

GIFFORD: And he may have to do so again if the panel decides they need to hear more. Blair's successor Gordon Brown is said to face the inquiry in the coming months.

Rob Gifford, NPR News, London.

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