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Opinion: Blair to face the music?

Or, will he call the tune?

Former U.S. President George W. Bush and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair enter the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, May 17, 2007. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

LONDON — The circus is coming back to town. Friday, not for the first time and maybe not for the last, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair will testify before an official inquiry into the Iraq War.

The Iraq Inquiry, it's official title, was set up to examine the U.K.'s involvement in the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and subsequent occupation of the country — "to establish, as accurately as possible, what happened and to identify the lessons that can be learned."

In a room inside the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre across the square from Parliament, Blair will take questions from a panel of five headed by Sir John Chilcot, a prime example of that unique form of British public life, the Whitehall Mandarin, a senior figure in the permanent government of elite civil servants.

In the streets outside another unique species of British life, the morally outraged protester, will gather in their hundreds — perhaps thousands — to demonstrate. As they have for the best part of a decade, people, in a lather of righteousness normally found in revival tents, will chant slogans and wave placards demanding Blair's arrest for war crimes. They will dip their hands in stage blood and hold them up for as long as it takes for photographers to get a shot of them. At the wilder ends some in the crowd will jostle police and hope for a smack on the noggin so they can feel even more aggrieved.

Having followed the proceedings for several months I can be reasonably certain of how Friday will go inside the hearing room. There is something more complete about the Chilcot Inquiry than previous attempts to get at "the truth" about Iraq. The fact that many of the main Iraq players are now out of office or retired has loosened tongues and shaken up memories. It has also frayed the ties that bind people when they are in government and forced by convention to obey the rules of "collective responsibility" for their decisions.

Most of the questions will focus on when precisely Blair made the decision to go to war. There will be lawyerly probing of minutiae about pre-war intelligence on WMD. The earlier testimony of those former colleagues trying to distance themselves from the former prime minister will be brought up and he will get a chance to respond. If the idea of the five committee members is to find out something new from these questions it will all be a waste of time. The story of how the U.S. and Britain and the other partners in the "Coalition of the Willing" went to war is a pretty well-covered one.

The Bush administration's decision to overthrow Saddam was probably made before its arrival in office — as Nicolas Lemann's New Yorker article published the week Bush was inaugurated in 2001 shows. Blair first heard of it when he went to Washington immediately after 9/11 and he had signed on for regime change more or less by February 2002. Everything else was window dressing or, as Noam Chomsky called it in a different context, manufacturing consent.

By the time of Blair's address to Parliament in September 2002 about the present danger Saddam represented — including the ability to strike British bases in Cyprus with WMD — the war train had left the station and anyone with a reasonably sophisticated knowledge of the way the world worked knew it. The maddening quasi-judicial probing inside the hall on Friday and the self-absorbed lunacy outside will not add a drop of new knowledge about this.

For me the questions that matter are the ones related to Tony Blair's relationship with George W. Bush because here the personal became the catastrophically political. It clouded the judgment of the shrewdest and most talented politician I have ever dealt with professionally.