Tutu, Blair, and the sexing up of guilt

2 Sept 2012

I’m disappointed in Desmond. The man we were all so fond of that his very name made academic mediocrity (a 2:2 degree) almost cool.

Why?

Because Bishop Tutu has joined the Blair-bashing bandwagon and called him a liar.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/sep/02/desmond-tutu-tony-blair-iraq

In an article extolling the virtues of moral leadership, the good Bishop presumably means to set an example by suggesting that Blair be “made to answer” for his actions “in the Hague.”

He predicates his attack on Blair on an unsupported supposition: that the suspected presence of WMD was an outright lie. It is as if the notion of this “lie” were a given, and needed no supporting evidence.

You might think that the war was horrible. I do.
You might wish that we had never gone there. I do.
You might feel sickened by every fruitless injury or death or displacement. I do.
You might feel that the 45-minute “sexing up” of the WMD threat was regrettable. I do.
You might wish that Tony Blair had been more of his own man vis-a-vis Bush. I do.
You might wish that Tony Blair had insisted on buying the weapons inspectors more time.
You might wish that Tony Blair had been more open about his desire for regime change.
You might feel angry about, and ashamed of, the whole thing.

But there is no evidence that Tony Blair lied about the suspected presence of WMD. Is there?

I have looked. Have you?

And unless you have evidence that he was lying, it’s an extraordinary – and vile – claim to suggest that he was.

If you are a good, moral, virtuous leader, and you want to demonstrate that by calling for someone to be sent to the Hague and tried for war crimes, you’d better be very sure of your ground.

For my part, I haven’t seen any evidence to suggest Blair didn’t think Saddam had WMD. Shoot me down. Send me the links. I don’t mind being wrong. But I want to be wrong based on evidence, please.

A word of warning: if you’re going to go to sources, please go as directly to the source as you can.

For instance, I’ve seen the Butler report quoted like this:

Intelligence on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and ballistic missile programmes is sporadic and patchy… From the evidence available to us, we believe Iraq retains some production equipment, and some small stocks of CW agent precursors, and may have hidden small quantities of agents and weapons.

– Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) assessment on 15 March 2002

This excerpt has been set against an interview in which Tony Blair suggested that Saddam had “stockpiles” of weapons, when the intelligence was clearly talking in terms of “small quantities.” “See?” runs the argument: “He was lying.”

But the source contains an extra sentence:

Intelligence on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and ballistic missile programmes is sporadic and patchy… From the evidence available to us, we believe Iraq retains some production equipment, and some small stocks of CW agent precursors, and may have hidden small quantities of agents and weapons. Anomalies in Iraqi declarations to UNSCOM suggest stocks could be much larger.

– Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) assessment on 15 March 2002

Furthermore, the context of the excerpt is:

274. On Iraq’s chemical weapons programme, the JIC reported in Key Judgements to its assessment that:

Iraq may retain some stocks of chemical agents.

and that:

Following a decision to do so, Iraq could produce:
– significant quantities of mustard within weeks;
– significant quantities of sarin and VX within months, and in the case of VX may have already done so.

[JIC, 15 March 2002]

This is hardly the source-based evidence that Blair-bashers need when they say he was lying.

When politicians do things in our name with which we violently disagree; when they do it despite clear and overwhelming lack of popular support; when they do it anyway and it all goes wrong in the most horrific way, we want to express our shame, frustration and anger.

We want to show that we are good, loving members of Tutu’s human brotherhood. Built, as he says, for goodness. We want to put a distance between ourselves and what went wrong. We want to show our credentials as well-meaning pacifists. We want to show, especially if we are on the left, that we don’t automatically and naively accept everything that was done by a left-wing party. We’re better, cleverer, and, above all, sorrier than that.

So fierce is the shame, so repellent is the human cost, that it feels easy and uncontroversial to go the next step and call the man in the middle of the mess a liar.

To scream for vengeance, court and criminality.

It’s certainly therapeutic.

But to go down this path without solid evidence – the sexing up of guilt – is not the action of caring, thoughtful, built-for-goodness folk.

For my money, Blair did not lie about the suspected presence of WMD.

And when good people use their currency – Nobel Peace Prize-winning currency, no less – to go along with unfounded supposition, I feel compelled to pipe up.

Desmond: for showing that leadership; for demonstrating that “honesty, morality and love,” it’s a 2:2 I’m afraid.

17 thoughts on “Tutu, Blair, and the sexing up of guilt

  1. “For my money, Blair did not lie about the suspected presence of WMD.”

    He didn’t – but it seems his office did. At the time Number 10 was busy spinning the 45 minutes claim to the Press, he appeared to be very careful not to make the claim in Parliament where an actual lie would destroy his career. An honest mistake, though tragic, is understandable – but allowing his office to spread untruths while taking care to remain unsullied by them is criminal.

  2. Interesting. But I want to stick to the precise claim in Tutu’s attack, that the war was “premised on the lie that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.”

  3. Blair is on record in a UK television interview (after it was no longer possible for him deny he knew about it) as saying he thought 45 minutes was with reference for WMD time to target for within the UK or Europe and didn’t realise it was with reference (at best) to Israel.

    I do not find his remarks remotely credible in that regard. You may believe that, but I think he lied about that and that he had a good understanding of the true nature of the case for war and was deliberately deceitful.

    Not that it stopped him being voted in again.

  4. Blair is on record in a UK television interview (after it was no longer possible for him deny he knew about it) as saying he thought 45 minutes was with reference for WMD time to target for within the UK or Europe and didn’t realise it was with reference (at best) to Israel.

    I do not find his remarks remotely credible in that regard. You may believe that, but I think he lied about that and that he had a good understanding of the true nature of the case for war and was deliberately deceitful.

    Not that it stopped him being voted in again.

  5. And that is the lie. He didn’t actively say it, he just had his minions say it for him. Newspaper editors didn’t all wake up one day and decide to print that Saddam could mobilise WMDs within 45 minute that could hit “our boys” in Cyprus – it was given to them by Number 10. Now I’m more than happy to criticise them for swallowing that guff whole and not investigating the claims properly, but the main blame lies with the government’s machine.

  6. If the case against him is actually without merit then perhaps a trial in the impartial environment of the Hague court would present an opportunity for him to clear his name. At the moment he is still hobbled by the stench of duplicity, which may be why he can only get work from pariah states with terrible human rights records.

  7. Yes I think it would be good to put the matter to bed, but arguably an array of inquiries has done that. And I feel we need to be a bit careful with the if-you’re-not-guilty-you-have-nothing-to-fear argument, as it has an ignoble history of deployment in inquisitions and witch hunts.

    On the specific question of whether or not TB may have lied about the belief that Saddam had WMD – which is, after all, the nub of it – I don’t see that there is even a prima facie case.

  8. ALSO Peter I think you and I both know that “a trial in the impartial environment of the Hague court…to clear his name” would hardly, even if thrown out, settle the matter – but it would, instead, fuel his detractors.

  9. What would you consider to be compelling evidence of Blair having lied or even deliberately misled?

  10. On the specific charge of having gone to war “premised on the lie that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction”, I would need to see evidence that Blair believed Iraq did not possess WMD, while saying that it did.

    What else would count as a lie?

  11. The point that Iain Collins makes is right. Iraq didn’t have WMD that threatened the UK. There was no evidence that it did and this is what we were invited to believe. How come I didn’t fall for Colin Powell’s evidence to Europe but somehow Tony Blair did? That’s false pretence.

  12. I may be drawn on this later. For now at least, I want to stick to the specific charge, which is (effectively) that Blair knew there were no WMD in Iraq. The 45-minutes question is one of a number of connected-but-separate points, but for the sake of disciplined argument, I am sticking to the core claim, just as Desmond Tutu does.

  13. The dossier is the problem, I think. It made a case for war but it was not really an intelligence document: it didn’t sift the evidence objectively, exploring probabilities, examining pros and cons, and so forth. It was a political document, which turned possibilities that WMD may exist into virtual certainties. It was arguably designed to justify a particular conclusion (and was notoriously beefed up to do so) rather than to inform evidence-based decision-making. Too much emphasis is placed on Mr Blair’s ‘belief’ that WMD existed, suggesting that if he held such a belief then he could not have lied. However, without proper evidence, he might be justly accused of having lied to himself, choosing to believe that something was certain when it was simply possible. Intellectual integrity demands much more than that, and falling short of such integrity is acting without a commitment to the truth. It’s not entirely honest….

  14. I may turn to the dossier at some point, but I am sticking for now to the central belief question.

    On that question, you suggest that he might have “lied to himself” and/or chosen “to believe that something was certain when it was simply possible.” You suggest that he might have formed these beliefs “without proper evidence” and that he therefore lacked “intellectual integrity”.

    Even if your ‘wilful self-delusion’ narrative were correct, forming beliefs wrongly is a long way short of criminality and lying. But I don’t subscribe to the narrative (and I have hunch you don’t either): the intelligence, for all its caveats, was clear that there were WMD; upon what other evidence could Blair have formed his beliefs, if not upon that of the intelligence services? That WAS the “proper evidence”.

  15. OMG. A champagne socialist apologising for Tony Blair. I heard it all. So much discussion over ten years, so many column inches, so many dead, so much destruction and this guy comes out of the blue and lets all hang out. The intellectual equivalent of Prince Harry in Las Vegas’ Wynn Resort & Casino. On champagne of course. Please can we, for once, start behaving like REAL socialists and not just champagne ones? There’s a lot of work to be done. Looks who’s in government. Champagne fascists!

  16. You may not have psychic powers, but you CAN see at least some of the advice offered to Tony Blair.

    Regarding the Colin Powell comment, he has explained that i) he was only weeks into the administration; that ii) he was working to keep sanctions in place; that iii) he was at pains not to say that Saddam did not have any WMD; that iv) things changed subsequently, particularly post-911. You may or not accept his explanations – in particular I find (iii) tricky – but my concern is whether there is proof that Tony Blair lied about the supposed existence of WMD.

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