Blogging Blair

OK, today is the big day. We’ve already had three hours of Tony Blair this morning, but they’re only letting the public in to either a morning or an afternoon session for Blair’s testimony, and I got the afternoon. I can’t believe I got one of these tickets—I never win anything. But here we are.

And I haven’t heard back on whether they have Wi-Fi in the room that I’ll be sitting in, so I don’t know if I’ll be able to post. If not, it will all come out in one large post later.

So what happened this morning? Blair was asked about what happened at Crawford (nothing special, no secret deal), the relation of Iraq to the mid-east peace process (none, apparently, although he said he was “frustrated” at the lack of progress), his relationship with Bush (fine, and did not set conditions). So far, Blair’s main point is that 9/11 changed everything—specifically, the perception of risk. So even though he more or less conceded that the actual risk posed by Saddam Hussein did not change, the perceived risk did. And he was very fudgy on one point—he saw no real difference between regime change and disarming Iraq, an interesting non-distinction for someone who trained as a lawyer to make. Blair also said that his comments in his now-notorious interview with Fern Britton of the BBC last year was a mistake. We’ve also learned that Blair seems to worry a lot about threats—he’s mentioned Iran several times today. Is he secretly lamenting that he didn’t get an attack on Iran in while he still could?

And who is doing the asking? This is where it gets a bit interesting, because as we have noted before, not one of the five members of the committee is a trained lawyer. And certainly none of them has any prosecutorial experience. Three are senior and widely respected civil servants, and the other two distinguished historians. All are peers. They are not all completely without some entanglements, as we shall see. All were appointed by Gordon Brown.

Sir John Chilcot—Chair. Formerly a member of the Butler inquiry (which was great at amassing evidence about the massaging of intelligence leading up to the war, but not so good on drawing firm conclusions) and a number of other investigative committees. He has held a variety of senior civil service positions, including Permanent Secretary at the Northern Ireland Office, and is associated with a number of police groups.

Sir Lawrence Freedman—Historian, Professor War Studies at the Imperial War College, and writer on wars, including this one, which he generally supported in the run-up. More famously, he contributed to Tony Blair’s famous 1999 speech that justified “liberal interventionism.”

Sir Martin Gilbert—not the mystery writer, but rather an historian and the Official Biographer of Winston Churchill (six volumes worth, plus editing the 12 volumes of letters), who in 2004 wrote (ht to Andy Beckett of The Guardian) “George W Bush and Tony Blair . . . may well, with the passage of time . . . join the ranks of [Franklin] Roosevelt and Churchill [as war leaders] when Iraq has a stable democracy.” He is the only committee member with military experience, as far as I can tell, having spent two years in the army for his National Service.

Sir Roderick Lyne—former British ambassador to the Russian Federation (2000-2004), and currently Deputy Chairman of Chatham House (the Royal Institute for International Affairs). Has held a number of diplomatic posts, including to the World Trade Association

Baroness Usha Prashar—First Civil Service Commissioner from 2000-2005, and on various quangos before and since.

A very good summary of the state of play, including the players and their styles, can be found in Andy Beckett’s piece in yesterday’s Guardian.

So far as I can tell, Lyne has been the most aggressive, if that’s the word, in his questioning of previous witnesses. But these are mostly civil servants, whose modus operandi, above all, is politeness. So reporters have been having fun translating, as it were—when one of them says “I’m puzzled by…” what is really meant is “I don’t believe a word of this,” that sort of thing.

And what lines of questioning should we be expecting this afternoon? Well, clearly the legal justification for the war issue has not gone away—in fact, it has been compounded, particularly by Lord Goldsmith’s admission on Wednesday that the main impetus for changing his view was a series of conversations he had in the US with members of the Bush administration. This is somehow not comforting at all, and committee members will likely pursue this issue. The other major issue will be the issue of whether the military was somewhat kept in the dark of the lead-up to the war, and was therefore unprepared for the occupation that followed the initial invasion. This was a clear message from a number of military and foreign Office officials who have previously testified.

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