Friday, March 05, 2010

Black and White. Simple.

An excellent essay written by Luke Smolinski concerning Tony Blair and Iraq, as published by The Beaver Online – the newspaper of the London School of Economics Students’ Union.

Weapons of Mass Distraction

By Luke Smolinski

There is an old adage in the newspaper industry that to be a commentator, you need to follow two rules: “Simplify, then exaggerate.” So – the traditional columnist would continue – Blair is a conniving, wiry-haired, rodent-faced warmonger, pathologically incapable of doing anything but lying. He lied that there were Weapons of Mass Destruction, deceived the Cabinet and the entire nation, so as to crawl further up the anal recesses of the American president and commit the country to a war of needless cataclysmic devastation. This is how the traditional column goes. Mr Blair’s tragic flaw is that he is a liar. He was born by spin. He died by spin.

But this argument helps no-one. It erects a straw man, which any smug, populism-loathing historian can quickly knock down. Andrew Roberts has already asserted that, if we conduct a proper analysis of history, we will find that there was a good case to invade Iraq. If we are nuanced in our approach, if we apply a subtle interpretation of history, we will find that the government had truly believed that there were WMDs. The Hutton Inquiry, the Butler Inquiry and the Chilcot Inquiry were not whitewashes, but properly-conducted investigations – and they all showed that the dossier was not sexed-up, that the government truly came to believe Saddam was a threat, and that there was a good case for war. Is this our final judgement on history? Must we conclude the war was just?

The truth is that WMDs are a useful diversion. If this is our only criticism – that Blair lied over WMDs – it can easily be dismissed as ‘populist nonsense’. Here’s how the response goes. We thought there were WMDs. There weren’t WMDs. But we were right to invade, given what we knew at the time. If the argument centres on this, it is easy for Blair to escape from this criticism. All Blair has to do is assert that it wasn’t a lie, it was a decision. “I believed it was the right thing to do”, “I had to take this decision as prime minister”: the argument is reduced to Blair denying that he’s a liar.

Let us get to the heart of the issue, then. What of jus ad bellum? Was the reasoning for war just, from the outset? Blair’s first justification is, and has always been, that Saddam was a threat to national security. The problem lies in the criteria for knowledge. The evidence, described to the PM as “patchy” and “sporadic”, was soon cited by Tony Blair in the House of Commons as “beyond doubt”. How was this transition made? The error lies in Tony Blair’s reasoning.

Tony Blair possessed a conviction that Saddam was a deep threat to national security, prior to any evidence of this. We know that Blair sent a series of private letters to Bush, assuring him “we are absolutely with you” – prior to any solid intelligence. Afterwards, Blair asked the intelligence services to compile a dossier proving the case for British action. This was done in entirely the wrong order. You do not start with a belief, and then ask for evidence of that belief. In science, in history, in the social sciences, you start with the evidence, from which you draw your hypothesis. Beliefs and convictions are too easily confirmed by the human capacity to seek confirmations, to search for patterns.

Evidence was found from a source which was untried and untested. These were the qualifications of the dossier: it was “patchy” and “sporadic”. Yet so convinced was the Prime Minister by his own prior convictions, that the qualifications were removed from Blair’s justification for war. No mention of these qualifications was made to the House of Commons. Instead, evidence that Saddam was a national threat was presented as “beyond doubt”. Blair had a duty to be dispassionate when citing the evidence to the House; yet he was already convinced.

So emotionally-charged was his speech that he asserted weapons could be deployed in “45 minutes”. The media leaped on this claim, greatly exaggerating the extent of Saddam’s threat to Britain. Blair had a duty to correct these exaggerations, but, convinced of the case for war, had no incentive to calm the media storm. Media-savvy Blair, with ex-tabloid journalist Alastair Campbell as his right-hand man, cannot plead ignorance to the consequences of making the “45-minute” claim. He knew it would scream from the headlines. Its only purpose was to heighten the emotions of the public.

Blair recently stated that 9/11 was crucial in his decision-making process; it changed “the calculus of risk”. We know that the 9/11 bombers had no connection with Iraq, yet Blair cites this as a turning point. Why? Because it made him believe that anything was possible. Saddam was no longer a worry, but a deep threat to national security. What 9/11 showed was not that Saddam was a greater imminent threat – but a greater hypothetical threat. The difference between these two is critical. It reveals that Blair wasn’t motivated by evidence, but by an increased fear. He wanted to invade Iraq not due to solid evidence – this came later in his decision – but due to emotion.

The response is that when there is such a hypothetical threat to national security, when our country is teetering on the edge of nuclear destruction, it is impossible to be dispassionate. War is emotionally-charged; while it would be nice to have unquestionable evidence, this is unrealistic; in such an uncertain world, we cannot afford to wait for 100 per cent knowledge. This may be true, but it is imperative that if we are to wage a war, we must have adequate justification to do so. The motivation cannot be fear or distrust, but greatly substantiated evidence. In a war with 150,000 Iraqis dead and four million refugees, the reasons for war have to be very substantial indeed.

Blair’s secondary justification for war is liberal interventionism. It is never the official line, but the interview with Fern Britton betrayed the inner workings of his mind. He let it slip that, if he’d have known Saddam possessed no WMDs, “I would have still thought it right to remove him.” Significantly, Blair added, “I mean obviously you would have had to use and deploy different arguments about the nature of the threat.” It betrays the internal logic that Saddam was a Bad Man, and the West was right to remove him. The conviction for war, in Blair’s mind, was undeniably entangled with all sorts of passions that Saddam was an evil dictator who ought to be removed.

Tony Blair started his career as a classical liberal interventionist. He thought the use of force was sometimes necessary to rid the world of greater evils. He showed this in his military interventions around the world, from Kosovo to Sierra Leone. He thought himself to be a latter-day Gladstone, injecting a newfound reverence for ethics into foreign policy. No dictator was too insuperable, no evil too unbeatable.

A more appropriate comparison is with Lord Palmerston, however, a leader who favoured gunboat diplomacy over real diplomacy, who saw Britain’s superpower status as a license to correct injustices. Counter to Gladstone’s position that international support was required, Palmerston thought Britain was uniquely placed to intervene in humanitarian crises: the normal judicial routes sometimes have to be circumvented for the sake of the common good. Gladstone made the point that this gives any country the right to intervene in another’s affairs – a disdain for international law renders it essentially pointless. Furthermore, one needs to be extremely cautious with respect to liberal intervention: an error in judgement, a miscalculation in the length of a war, the lack of an exit strategy – all will have devastating consequences. These criticisms may be applied equally to Iraq.

Tony Blair showed no hesitation in going to war without international co-operation. In Blair’s eyes, Bush and he were fighting for the causes of good; Saddam was undeniably evil. The consequences of this simplistic worldview are that the reputation of liberal interventionism has been tarnished. The use of force is sometimes justified, but an improper wrestle with the arguments for war and the long-term consequences – in this case – has rendered liberal interventionism unjust, in the eyes of the world. The next time there is another Kosovo, be sure that the world will be less willing to intervene.

The reason why we should be angered by Blair is not because he lied over WMDs: it is his psychological state which is his flaw. The conviction that Iraq was to be invaded came first. The actual evidence and international law were secondary to this. The desire to invade came from emotions which derived from an all-too-simplistic worldview. The world was black and white. Blair and Bush were on the side of justice and liberty, ridding the world of all things bad and evil, and Saddam Hussein was a bad and evil. Simple.

Contrary to that old newspaper adage, simplicity too often proves deadly.


Post a Comment

<< Home