Tony Blair, who gave evidence today to an enquiry in London set up to draw lessons from the Iraq disaster, has disappointed many people by refusing to express regret about his decision to go to war. "Unrepentant", "defiant", "righteous" are some of the inevitable headline words, but they strike the wrong note. Having watched the final two hours of today's six-hour grilling, I think "tormented" better captures his state of mind.
His agony is not that of a man who has done wrong; he doesn't believe he has. "I genuinely believe that if we had left Saddam in power, even with what we know now, we would still have had to deal with him in circumstances when the threat was worse," he told the enquiry under Sir John Chilcot, "and possibly in circumstances when it was hard to mobilise any support for dealing with that threat." His argument throughout the day was that Saddam was a monster whose removal was necessary because of his willingness to manufacture WMD; the fact that no WMD were eventually found has not affected his judgement. "Suppose we backed off," he told the enquiry. "What we now know is that he retained absolutely the intent and intellectual know how to restart a nuclear and chemical weapons programme when weapons inspectors were out and the sanctions were changed." This view of Saddam was formed in the aftermath of 9/11; the attack on New York, Blair believed, "changed the calculus of risk".
But he admitted that the mission came close to failure when Iran and Al-Qaeda exploited Saddam's removal to engage in a brutal strategy of destabilizing Iraq. "If we had known what we know now we would have done things very differently. People didn't think that al-Qaida and Iran would play the role that they did. It was really the external elements of al-Qaida and Iran that really caused this mission very nearly to fail."
Blair admitted to other failings: he said Britain had planned for a non-existent humanitarian disaster in the immediate wake of the invasion, but had not foreseen that the Iraqi state could not function. That's not a small admission. That's not a small failure.
The result of these errors, he did not say -- it didn't need saying -- was a massive loss of human life. You could see how much this weighed on him when one of the commissioners read to him the statistics on the violent deaths of Iraqis month by month over the period 2003-2007. As Blair rightly pointed out, these were not deaths caused by the Coalition but by murderous Islamic fanatics paid for by Iran and trained by Al Qaeda; but he knows that it was the Coalition's failure to ensure security in the post-invasion period which allowed the terrorists to move in so spectacularly.
So what Blair is left with are no regrets over the invasion, but a deep sense of responsibility for its massive human cost.
That's not an easy place to be.
"I had to take this decision as prime minister," he said today. "It was a huge responsibility then and there is not a single day that passes by that I do not think about that responsibility, and so I should." You knew, watching him, that this was true. It torments him.
I imagine that this came up frequently in his 2007 process of becoming a Catholic. Is there anything you want to tell me? "I took my country into the Iraq war, Father."
He used the word "responsibility" again when asked if he had regrets. "Responsibility – but not a regret for removing Saddam Hussein", he said, to boos from the gallery. "I think he was a monster."
You can deplore his manic self-belief, his sometimes tortured arguments, and his unshakeable conviction.
But my respect for Blair increased today. It is much easier, in many ways, to repent of something you now regret. How much harder it is to live with the cost of something you still believe was right. We who never faced - -nor will have ever to face --- a decision of that magnitude cannot imagine it. It doesn't make his decision right. But he does not flee the responsibility that came with it, and faces it every day.