How Tony Blair's Close Relationship With George W. Bush Fueled the March to Baghdad

Tony Blair and George Bush
British Prime Minister Tony Blair, left, in the Azores along with U.S. President George W. Bush, right, in March 2003. Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

The most audacious speech Tony Blair ever made as Britain's prime minister was in Chicago in April 1999, before he knew that George W. Bush would become U.S. president and long before 9/11 changed the course of his premiership. The doctrine of liberal intervention that he laid out became the siren song that led him to Baghdad.

Those of us who listened to him that day—making the promise that he would never accept a policy of appeasement towards Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia or Saddam Hussein in Iraq—couldn't know where his argument would take him, but it became obvious at that moment that this prime minister, in office for less than two years, felt at home on the world stage and wanted to be bold.

Indeed, it was on that American visit that he was able to persuade Bill Clinton, against the odds, to commit grounds troops to the Balkans, in the interests of the removal of Milosevic. And, in turn, that persuaded him three years later that he shouldn't hesitate to march to Iraq to depose Saddam.

By the time Bush arrived in the White House, Blair had seen Milosevic go and was convinced that it was he, more than anyone else, who had engineered his downfall. When that conviction about the just use of force was reinforced by the New York attacks less than a year after Bush's election, and the Afghan campaign began, the most decisive relationship of his premiership was sealed.

Blair's words to Americans after 9/11 were perfectly chosen, and within a few months he was saying privately that his relationship with individuals in the White House was stronger even than it had been with the Clinton team. He argued that Bush was wildly underestimated by his critics, and—to the dismay of some of his cabinet colleagues—would praise his flexibility of mind, and executive ability.

Consequently, when the administration hawks set a course for Baghdad they found Blair an enthusiastic fellow-traveller. If it came to war, he would be with them.

Only he and Bush know precisely what passed between them at the president's ranch in Crawford, Texas, in April 2002. Although Blair himself has insisted that he gave no commitment to regime change in Iraq in their private talks, those around him become convinced form then on that there would be no going back—just as they had sensed a profound change in Blair after a private meeting with Bush in the White House soon after 9/11.

He was a prime minister with a mission. That did not mean that he didn't try to get a specific U.N. resolution authorizing force before formally agreeing the invasion. He did. Neither did it mean that he dissembled about Saddam's weapons of mass destruction. He was convinced that they existed. But behind it all lay the belief he'd articulated in Chicago, in support of a just war.

Sir John Chilcot's seven-year inquiry into the Iraq war has painted in its criticisms of the way the Blair government interpreted intelligence, and its failure to pursue all the alternatives to war, the picture of a government that was prone to value boldness and conviction over reflection and patience.

They were precisely the qualities that Blair himself had honed in his relationship with Bush.

Think of him in July 2003, addressing both houses of Congress, and getting more than a dozen standing ovations. The young prime minister, who'd never held even the most junior office before getting the top job, was hailed as a military hero and statesman. Heady stuff.

But it was just after that speech, as he flew across the Pacific to Japan that he was told of the death at home of Dr David Kelly, the U.K. weapons expert whose agony over the decision to go to war three months earlier would become one of the most painful strands of the arguments that would eventually ensnare Blair after his departure from office.

Did he sense the depth of the Iraq tragedy at that moment, or did his conviction stay strong?

I remember talking to him at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington on the last day of January 2003, after difficult and inconclusive talks with Bush about whether a second U.N. resolution would be needed before war. He was as bullish as ever. Not the supplicant, but the companion-in-arms.

"If George Bush weren't raising these issues about Iraq and weapons of mass destruction, I'd be raising them myself," he said. And he meant it.

James Naughtie is a special correspondent for BBC News.

How Tony Blair's Close Relationship With George W. Bush Fueled the March to Baghdad | Opinion