LONDON — Tony Blair offered a personal and passionate defense of his legacy Wednesday in a marathon news conference that saw the former British prime minister hauled over the coals for his role in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
Over the course of two hours, Blair attempted to keep public opinion from calcifying around him as a liar and a villain of the Iraq War following the publication of the Chilcot Report on the origins of the Iraq War.
“I express more sorrow, regret and apology than you may ever know or believe,” said Blair in perhaps his most heartfelt statement yet related to the Iraq War.
The long-awaited report was published Wednesday morning and it was stronger and more scathing than many people were expecting. Some of the relatives of the 179 British soldiers who died during the war said it was "worth the wait."
In March 2003, there was no “imminent threat” from the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, the report said, arguing that military action was “not a last resort” and that policy had been based on “flawed” intelligence.
By early afternoon, Blair had called a news conference where he delivered a lengthy statement and before fielding questions from local and international media.
The Iraq war was “the hardest, most momentous, most agonizing decision I took in my 10 years as British prime minister,” he said.
It was an emotional tour de force, with Blair struggling to hold back tears, his voice quavering at times.
"Please stop saying I was lying or, you know, I had some sort of dishonest or underhand motive,” Blair pleaded.
He repeatedly insisted that he made decisions on good faith based on reports at the time that Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. He acknowledged that no such weapons were ever found and that the "intelligence assessments made at the time of going to war turned out to be wrong."
He said that “not a single day” passes without him rethinking what happened. But he was also defiant over his decision to join the U.S.-led invasion and that the world was now a “better place” without Hussein in power.
Years of festering anger over the Iraq War has eroded Blair’s reputation and it is not uncommon for anti-war protesters holding aloft “Bliar” signs to pursue him at public events. But the news conference was a rare platform for Blair to address the wider public and attempt to sway public opinion.
When Blair’s Labour government came into power in 1997, it did so on a tidal wave of support that ended 18 years of Conservative rule. Suddenly Britain had a new prime minister who was young (he was only 43 at the time), charismatic and a gifted communicator. He soon earned the nickname “Teflon Tony” because nothing bad seemed to stick.
It was a different story 10 years later when he left office. In 2007, there was deep public anger over Blair’s relationship with George W. Bush and the Iraq war. His critics gave him a new nickname that did stick: “Bush’s poodle.”
That image was reinforced Wednesday when the inquiry published a memo Blair wrote to George W. Bush in July 2002 — eight months before the actual invasion of Iraq — where he said “I will be with you, whatever.”
Blair was repeatedly pressed on his “whatever” comment at the news conference, where he insisted that it was not a “blank check, and it wasn’t taken as that.” He said that he had pushed the U.S. to go down the route of the U.N. Security Council.
He implored people to “put yourself in my shoes” and to remember the climate after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when “my premiership changed completely.”
He said that the report “put to rest” allegations that his government lied about intelligence, but he acknowledged mistakes were made in failing to plan for the aftermath of the attack.
“I acknowledge all the problems, I acknowledge the mistakes and take responsibility for them,” he said. “What I cannot do, or will not do, is say we took the wrong decision. I believe I made the right decision, and that the world is better and safer as a result of it.”