Tony Blair on Iraq War: ‘Who will weep?’

By Chris McCarthy

This is not the time to falter. This is the time for this House…to show at the moment of decision that we have the courage to do the right thing.

Prime Minister Tony Blair, 18 March 2003

In his departing remarks to Parliament after a ten-year premiership, former prime-minister Tony Blair acknowledged he was “never a great House of Commons man” but could pay the House the greatest tribute by saying “that from first to last I never stopped fearing it.” He was given a rare standing ovation from both sides with the then shadow opposition leader, David Cameron, urging his party to their feet. His legacy was still taking shape but his impact on British life, whether for good or bad, was unquestionable and momentous.

His influence was also felt within the walls of the Palace of Westminster. Accused of diminishing Parliament as a deliberative body with his ‘sofa-style government’ and neutering its effectiveness in scrutinising the executive by tightly controlling the parliamentary agenda, on one particular occasion there could be no circumnavigation and no avoidance. On the issue that would define his premiership Blair would have to front-up to Parliament.

Few military engagements are undertaken without impassioned debate. When members of our armed forces are being asked to risk their lives and some will inevitably make the ultimate sacrifice, opinions will be heated. Afghanistan, in certain respects, was the exception. The case seemed so obvious, the purpose defined if still murky how it would be achieved in practice, the international community broadly unified and the justification abundantly apparent after the World Trade Center towers came crashing down.

Iraq was more complicated. The case for war was not convincing, the international community was fractured and domestic support divided. In Afghanistan Britain was making its contribution to a 49-nation force; in Iraq the country was reduced to playing the obedient poodle to a hawkish US administration. On Tuesday 18 March 2003 Tony Blair came before the Commons to make the case for war one final time before the House voted that night on sending UK forces into battle.

In an illustration of his disposition to situate events in their long-term significance, Blair answered his own rhetorical question of why it [the impending conflict in Iraq] matters so much, not with charges of the threat Saddam Hussein posed to British security – though he would come to that – but because it would define the dynamics of the world stage for decades:

It will determine the way Britain and the world confront the central security threat of the 21st century; the development of the UN; the relationship between Europe and the US…the way the US engages with the rest of the world. It will determine the pattern of international politics for the next generation.

What followed was an extensive chronological documentation of Iraq’s history of using biological and chemical weapons and Saddam’s belligerence towards UN weapons inspectors. It was delivered in the lawyer’s style that would have been familiar to Blair having trained and practised as a barrister; functional but effective.

Blair favoured involving the listener, often setting up sentences with the phrases, ‘people tell him’ and ‘my answer is.’ Again, to Parliament, after describing the six tests drawn up by the UN for Saddam to abide by with regards his weapons programme, and the action that would be taken should he fail to cooperate, Blair would “defy anyone to describe that as an unreasonable position.”

Robin Cook, the former Foreign Secretary, did just that. Resigning from his cabinet post on the eve of conflict, he savaged with devastating force the rush to war. Blair was adamant that all options had been exhausted, that Saddam had been given every opportunity to comply, “Our fault has not been impatience.” The only route to peace with someone like Saddam was “diplomacy backed by force”, argued Blair, and to equivocate any longer, to indulge delay, would be dangerous not only for Britain’s immediate security but for the precedent it sets:

It is dangerous if such regimes disbelieve us…Dangerous because one day they will mistake our innate revulsion against war for permanent incapacity; when, in fact, pushed to the limit, we will act…Iraq is not the only regime with WMD. Back away now from this confrontation and future conflicts will be infinitely worse and more devastating.

The war in Iraq was about more than the war in Iraq. It was about those “tyrannical regimes” trying to acquire chemical, biological, and in particular, nuclear weapons capability. It was about securing freedom, democracy, and tolerance that are the “hallmarks” of our way of life. The threat of despotic regimes or terrorist cells acquiring such weaponry is very real, implored Blair; it’s the justification, in effect, for pre-emptive action against those that facilitate such possibilities. “Of course Iraq is not the only part of this threat. But it is the test of whether we treat the threat seriously.”

As his speech reached its crescendo, the oratory began to soar, the theatre of the occasion grew and Blair delivered one of the debate’s more memorable lines, if a little forced: If Britain pulls back now, if it fails to follow through on its promises and commitments, “who will celebrate and who will weep?”

The motion was passed by 412 to 149 votes and the military campaign began a day later. The war cost the lives of 179 British soldiers and upwards of 100,000 Iraqi non-combatants (civilians); it swallowed up £9bn of government revenue, further complicated relations between East and West and expedited Blair’s exit from office. It was an unmitigated disaster.

But for that day in Parliament, in the chamber that housed the gladiatorial contests of Gladstone and Disraeli, of Pitt and Fox, the spirit of debate was revived and Blair delivered one of the great parliamentary speeches.

To fall back into the lassitude of the last 12 years, to talk, to discuss, to debate but never act; to declare our will but not enforce it; to combine strong language with weak intentions, a worse outcome than never speaking at all.

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