NUMBER of words: 2.5 million. Number of words that will stick: six.
One sentence jumps out from the coverage this morning of the Chilcot Inquiry into Britain’s part in the Iraq War. This is former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s personal reassurance to President W Bush: “I will be with you, whatever.”
History often picks out a phrase and sets it in stone. And those are the words that will now be chiselled out for Tony Blair. Fairly or not, they suggest that Britain’s decision to join in the US war against Saddam Hussein was taken for reasons of friendship between our prime minister and their president, rather than on solid military or humanitarian grounds.
In the heat after 9/11, calm reflection was not what Bush wanted: he wanted regime change in Iraq and he wanted it now. Blair was hesitant, urging a degree of caution, but then he went along with what his buddy required of him.
There always was something uncomfortable in all that footage at the time, showing Bush and Blair together, like the world’s most alarming buddy movie: Tony and George’s Big Iraq Adventure.
There were geo-political, military and humanitarian reasons for attacking Iraq; but there were also reasons for not doing so. The awfulness of Saddam’s regime was never in question, and the war ‘solved’ that problem by removing him. Yet it has always seemed as if the flaw in this was that there was no plan beyond going in and hitting Saddam; no thought to the longer-term repercussions: merely a Hollywood-style act of getting even. The US wanted revenge for 9/11, which was understandable but not necessarily well focused.
The war cost the lives of British troops, and the relatives of those who died will never forgive Blair, although death from conflict is, it has to be said, one danger of a military life.
Many more deaths occurred in Iraq, with the figure put as high as 600,000 – alongside the millions displaced from their homes. And last weekend’s deadly blast in Iraq only further heightens the sense that the war solved nothing and almost certainly made life worse for the country we had intended to rescue.
Those six fateful words were written in a letter to Mr Bush in July 2002. Blair reportedly wanted that phrase kept out of the Chilcot Inquiry, but there they are. Reports such as this are dense and difficult and very few will ever read all those 2.5 million words. But anyone who watched the news or even just glanced at the headlines will recall that phrase – suggesting, as it now does, that Tony Blair tied himself and his country to the American war without proper procedure or consideration for the feelings of the British people, and spurred on by dodgy intelligence.
All those millions of words, and one word you won’t hear from Tony Blair. And that is “sorry”. His lack of repentance is unsurprising in a sense as he has to stick by his belief that what he did was right. And he might not say sorry as such, but he is sorrowful, a man crucified on a cross he made for himself; a man fleetingly so popular and now forever to be remembered for hitching himself to an American war; a man forever tainted by pulling Britain into a tragic misadventure.
Of course history happens on the hot hoof and is then written in the long shadows afterwards. But even that caution cannot disguise the still unfolding tragedy of Iraq and our part in that tragedy. And it can’t wash away the notion that somehow Blair joined Bush in a star-struck crusade built on revenge and no proper plan.