Byline: JOHN O'SULLIVAN
BY JOHN O'SULLIVAN Editor-at-large of National Review
MR BLAIR had hoped to keep Iraq off the election agenda and to concentrate on the economy and reform of public services. As PG Wodehouse presciently remarked, however: "Fate, unnoticed in the background, was quietly slipping lead into the boxing glove."
That lead struck the Prime Ministerial jaw when passages from the Attorney General's 7 March interim legal advice were leaked to Channel 4 this week. It intensified the already fierce controversy over whether the Prime Minister "lied" in order to justify the Iraq invasion. Blair's reputation - whether he wins or loses - looks glassy-eyed and on the ropes.
So what happened?
It must first be said that Tony Blair did not tell a "lie" in claiming that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. He genuinely believed this - as did virtually every other prime minister, president and intelligence chief in the West (including the French). Believing this, he over-interpreted the evidence that Saddam was concealing WMD stockpiles. Even so his concerns were reasonable.
Saddam certainly had possessed WMDs a few years before. And we know that Saddam had made preparations to resume his WMD programme when UN sanctions collapsed.
Yet, in arguing the case for toppling Saddam, Blair made three errors. He exaggerated the urgency of the WMD threat to Britain. He downplayed the possibility that an Iraqi intervention might be illegal under international law.
And he placed insufficient stress on justifications drawn from national interest and geopolitical stability.
It is the second misjudgment that opens Blair to the charge of lying. Did he give a deliberately misleading account of the Attorney General's advice by suppressing the doubts and qualifications expressed in the interim document?
Or was he justified in not mentioning them because, as Lord Goldsmith now argues, those qualifications were merely his ruminations on the way to a final judgment?
As lawyers skilled in weighing their words past and present, both Goldsmith and Blair can doubtless secure the Scottish verdict of "not proven" on the charge of lying. But whatever the fine print, both men gave parliament and people the false impression that the case for war was legally less qualified than it was.
Why did Blair make these three misjudgments - and risk the charge of lying on the second? The reason is not that he is simply a habitual liar.
Even supposing that to be the case, it would be too much of a coincidence if Lord Goldsmith was a habitual liar as well.
Blair's wrigglings proceed from something more serious - Blairism itself.
BLAIR'S foreign policy has been described as " muscular internationalism".
He has sent British armed forces into action in Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Kosovo and Iraq.
In the first two, he had the United Nations and international law on his side. In Kosovo and Iraq, he argued that the UN ought to have approved intervention - and would have done so if Russia and France respectively had not threatened vetoes. In the prime minister's worldview, if the UN passes resolutions against oppressive actions, it has a duty to enforce those actions. …