Washington In a passionate speech to Congress Thursday, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said history will forgive the U.S.-led coalition if weapons of mass destruction are not found in Iraq because of the broader good of fighting tyranny and preventing future terrorism.
"If we are wrong, we will have destroyed a threat that, at its least, is responsible for inhuman carnage and suffering. That is something I am confident history will forgive. But if our critics are wrong, if we are right -- and we do not act, then we will have hesitated in the face of this menace when we should have given leadership," Blair said.
"That is something history will not forgive," he said, triggering a sustained standing ovation from Congress, one of more than three dozen times his speech was interrupted by applause.
At a subsequent joint news conference, Blair and President Bush stood by their assertions that the deadly weapons will be found, but they avoided answers to the tough questions each faces at home.
Blair's visit was meant to honor America's staunchest ally in the war, and he was accorded the rare honor of being invited to address a joint session of Congress. The British leader also was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal.
But shortly after receiving a hero's welcome on Capitol Hill, Blair joined Bush for a tense exchange with reporters at the White House about pre-war intelligence and the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
Bush said postwar chaos, a decade of practice in hiding weaponry programs, and only recent cooperation by high-level officials from Saddam Hussein's regime, explained why the arms had not been uncovered more than two months after the fall of Baghdad.
The two leaders' answers did little, however, to solve mounting questions over conflicting intelligence assessments about whether Saddam attempted to buy uranium from Africa, a key indication of whether Iraq was trying to reconstitute its nuclear program.
At the center of the controversy is Bush's assertion in his January State of the Union speech that Iraq tried to buy uranium in Africa, a claim the president attributed to the British. Lawmakers are investigating who in the White House pushed to include the remarks despite CIA expressions of concern. It was subsequently revealed that the reports of Iraq's attempts to buy uranium were at least partly based on forged documents.
Blair said he stands by intelligence assessments concluding Baghdad did try to make the purchase. "The British intelligence that we have we believe is genuine," he told reporters.
For his part, Bush dodged a question about whether he would accept responsibility for a sentence in his speech accusing Iraq of trying to acquire uranium in Africa, citing British intelligence conclusions that were disputed by the CIA.
"I take responsibility for putting troops into action. I take responsibility for making the tough decision to put together a coalition to remove Saddam Hussein," Bush said. Both U.S. and British intelligence "made a clear and compelling case that Saddam Hussein was a threat to security and peace," he said.
"As long as I hold this office I will never risk the lives of American citizens by assuming the good will of dangerous enemies," the president said. "We're being tested in Iraq. Our enemies are looking for signs of hesitation. They're looking for signs of weakness. They will find none."
Speaking to a packed House chamber, Blair strongly defended the decision to topple Saddam and said he believed "with every fiber of instinct and conviction" that the United States and Britain had to show leadership to ensure that terrorists did not get their hands on the world's deadliest weapons.
Acknowledging his political problems at home, where he has been under fire both from his political opposition and within his party over Iraq, Blair noted with a grin that the standing ovation that greeted him was "more than I deserve and more than I'm used to, quite frankly."
In an eloquent address, laced with both humor and American history, Blair heralded the role the United States has played in fighting the broader war on terrorism despite skepticism and questions among allies. Once again, he played the role of bridge between a United States traumatized by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and a Europe suspicious of America's power and willingness to use it.
"There never has been a time when the power of America was so necessary or so misunderstood; or when, except in the most general sense, a study of history provides so little instruction for our present day," Blair said.
America's leadership in international affairs is so crucial in the 21st century that it outdates theories that prevailed during the Cold War and in 19th century Europe, he said.
"There is no more dangerous theory in international politics today than that we need to balance the power of America with other competitor powers, different poles around which nations gather," Blair said. "It is dangerous because it is not rivalry but partnership we need, a common will and a shared purpose in the face of a common threat."
Blair also gently urged the United States to recognize that the war against terrorism, will not be successful if fought only with bullets.
"This is a battle that can't be fought or won only by armies," he said. "Our ultimate weapon is not our guns but our beliefs ... The spread of freedom is the best security for the free. It is our last line of defense and our first line of attack."