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Britain and Blair painfully revisit the invasion of Iraq

As if our British brethren aren't experiencing enough angst over leaving the European Union, they're now being confronted with looking back at their leaders' decision 13 years ago to partner with the United States in its invasion of Iraq-- arguably the most ill-advised war either country has ever undertaken.

A seven-year parliamentary inquiry into the origins and wisdom of invading Iraq to topple the dictatorial regime of Saddam Hussein has emphatically declared it an immense and avoidable folly.

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The British prime minister at the time, Tony Blair, has publicly accepted "full responsibility" for following the American president at the time, George W. Bush, over the cliff into the quagmire that still haunts both countries.

Both the report and Mr. Blair's candid response stand out in sharp contrast to the behavior of his friend George, who by and large has declined to engage in much reflection about taking his country, and the so-called "coalition of the willing," into that war of choice based on unrealistic expectations, poor planning and faulty intelligence.

Mr. Blair fought back tears in an extraordinary press conference in which he expressed "more sorrow, regret and apology than you may ever know or can believe" in the result of his decision to join Mr. Bush in the invasion. At the same time, he insisted "I did it because I thought it was right."

In the 2002 run-up to the invasion, as the prime minister of the U.K., Mr. Blair had repeatedly called on the American president to return to the United Nations Security Council for specific authorization to take military action to achieve "regime change" in Iraq.

That demand apparently was central to Mr. Bush's decision in February 2003 to send Secretary of State Colin Powell to the UN to make his dramatic presentation of "evidence" purporting to establish that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction poised to throw against the West. Mr. Powell said then that "every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources. These are not assertions," but "facts and conclusion based on solid intelligence ... from human sources."

The British report, headed by retired civil servant Sir John Chilcot, included a message from Mr. Blair to Mr. Bush in July 2002, seven months before the invasion, declaring, "I will be with you, whatever."

The report says former British Ambassador David Manning told Mr. Blair the backing was "too sweeping" and appeared to "close off options," but Mr. Bush decided in March 2003 to launch the invasion without further UN action.

Mr. Powell later pointedly expressed his own regret that he had made the pitch, based as turned out later on faulty intelligence, calling his speech "a blot" on his distinguished public record.

Through all this, however, Mr. Bush clung to the rightness of his decision to invade, even after no chemical or other weapons of mass destruction cited as the rationale ever were found.

In fact, in an interview upon the capture of the Iraq's dictator, when ABC newscaster Diane Sawyer pressed Mr. Bush on the failure to find the weapons, he airily replied: "So what's the difference? ... If he were to acquire weapons, he would be a danger. ... So we got rid of him. And there's no doubt that the world is a safer, freer place as a result of Saddam being gone."

Mr. Chilcot, in commenting on his report, said Messrs. Blair and Bush made the case for the invasion "with a certainty (about the weapons) that was not justified," considering the false intelligence on WMDs, and hence without any imminent threat posed.

Mr. Blair's regretful apology for taking Great Britain to war "whatever" on Mr. Bush's assurances offers a sharp contrast to his American friend's cocky and arrogant insistence that it made no "difference" that his prime rationale for going to war was wrong.

More than seven years into placid and mostly silent retirement, Mr. Bush has yet to say or otherwise demonstrate that he recognizes "what's the difference" in putting military forces in harm's way, as Mr. Chilcot observed, "before the peaceful options for disarmament had been exhausted" and when "military action at that time was not the last resort." The difference is that 179 British and about 4,500 American forces have died, so far, not to mention the many thousands of dead and wounded, combatants and civilians alike.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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