Incompetent Machiavellians

Over at the normblog, Norman Geras writes (among many others) these words:

It may be worth pointing out that I don’t only mean, here, criticism from those who opposed the war. I mean also from those of us who supported it. For any deliberate misleading of the public that there was (if there was), so far from strengthening what was already a good case for war, would have detracted from it. It would have detracted from it via the implication that there weren’t sound enough reasons for a regime-change intervention, when there were. There were on human rights grounds, because wherever the proverbial pale might be thought to be located in this matter, the Baathist regime had long been beyond it. And there were sound reasons, as well, because of what was taken as established knowledge about that regime’s record on WMD (of both possession and use of these) � a point not too well remembered by the war’s critics in the last couple of months � and of what it had yet to account for to the world community. By attempting wilfully to deceive the public, if it should turn out that this is what either or both of them did, George Bush and Tony Blair would have done a disservice to the case for war by the implicit suggestion that, in their own minds, the case wasn’t good enough already – which it was. Deliberate public deception by democratic politicians is in any event a vice not to be taken lightly.

And in one of his ever-interesting Daily Moiders, Marc Mulholland argues along these lines:

I paid a fair amount of attention to the run up to the war. Nevertheless, I have no recollection that WMD being deployable in 45 minutes was ever a real issue. Certainly no pro-war people I know paid much attention, nor did anti-war people waste much effort in trying to cast doubt on it. … The open casus bellum was that Saddam was defying, even if only in detail, UN demands for disarming. This implied another casus bellum, suspicion of Saddam’s motives and aims. The unofficial ambition of US / UK was to detroy a repugnant regime. The hope was that they could create a reasonably pliant regime in the region that, nevertheless, would act as a democratic beacon undermining the corrupt old mainstays of western influence, particularly Saudi Arabia, not to mention Iran & Syria. It is a reversal of the old tradition of bringing down radical democratic (or at least populist / nationalist) regimes by sponsoring a coup.

The 45 minute issue is a bizarre diversion from all of this..

I’m putting these two extracts together because they seem to me to miss more or less the same point, which seems to me to be an important one. On Planet Geras, there were some good reasons to go to war, but Mr Blair perversely chose to focus instead on some bad reasons, and, by trying to make those bad reasons appear better than they in fact were, may have misled the public. On Planet Mulholland, by contrast, there were both open and hidden reasons for war, but neither set of reasons has much to do with the so-called “45-minute” claim which has been gripping the British media in general and the Independent newspaper in particular for the last few months.But in both cases we need to remember why Mr Blair was trumpeting these bad reasons for war so often and why these bad reasons were so important to him that (at the very least) he and his minions encouraged the dissemination of various misleading and false claims to the public, the media and the Labour backbenchers whose votes were crucial in the parliamentary division of 19 March about the actually-existing threat which Iraq posed to the UK.

First, Mr Blair wasn’t prepared to be seen to tear up existing international law altogether in the run-up to the war by demanding “regime change”, which would directly threaten both of the fundamental pillars of the international legal regime: state sovereignty and non-intervention; indeed, the Attorney General produced a solemn (but not yet published) memorandum explaining why he reckoned, implausibly, that the Government’s behaviour was fully in accordance with international law.

Second, the claim that the US and the UK were acting to uphold the will of the UN was quadruply and terminally undermined by (i) the text of the relevant resolutions, which did not use the standard codewords (“all necessary means”) to authorise war, (ii) the failure to get the all-important (to Mr Blair) “second resolution” through the Security Council; (iii) the obvious opposition of most UN member-states to the war; and (iv) the fact that the UN’s own weapons inspectors in general and Hans Blix in particular made it reasonably clear that they were coping pretty well and that they didn’t really welcome further military intervention in Iraqi affairs.

The reason Mr Blair fell back on telling porkies about the kind of threat that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq posed to the UK is that (for whatever reasons: take your pick from the above list, or from any others that take your fancy) he had decided he wanted to go to war, and he didn’t think he could get enough public and political support to sustain him through the conflict if he was patently undermining both international law and international opinion.

So Norman Geras is right: he did go out on a limb to emphasise some appalling reasons for war; but this wasn’t just a silly error of reasoning on his part: he exploited those appalling reasons because he judged (almost certainly correctly) that the better reasons weren’t going to be politically effective in getting him the war he wanted to fight. And Marc Mulholland is also right: no thoughtful observer of the politics of the build-up to the war should have taken the so-called 45 minute claim seriously, and no-one was especially interested in it, but it’s important to remember why it, and the various other claims like it in the silly dossier on the Iraqi threat, were stitched up into an important figleaf for Mr Blair and why (horribly to mix a metaphor) it’s not at all bizarre that the media should now want to shine a spotlight on that figleaf in the way that they are doing.

It seems to me that the kindest thing that one could say about Mr Blair is that he’s an incompetent Machiavellian. If you think (and, to clarify, I do not now and did not think then) that the case for military intervention was so compelling that any political leader should have been perfectly prepared to commit, all things considered, relatively minor acts of public dishonesty so to intervene, then Mr Blair’s only crime is to have been found out.

But since incompetent Machiavellians are probably the last people by whom we should wish to be governed, it’s not a terribly strong line of defence after all.

UPDATE [31.8.2003]: Norman Geras replies.

0 thoughts on “Incompetent Machiavellians”

  1. A friend of mine, Andrew Clark, co-wrote a book about the search for space aliens a few years ago which had a nice section about how the Russians and the Americans went about their search in different ways. (This is from memory, but I think gets things roughly right).Both parties to the Cold War assumed that space aliens would be like them, only more so, with the result that the Americans were looking for the kind of radio noise that might show that there was a free market in trans-galactic communications, while the Russians were looking for evidence of heavy engineering in solar systems as commmunist super-aliens pulled planets into alignment with one another, and that kind of thing.

    Space aliens were, however, never found.

  2. Good points from planet Brooke (Gerry Healy, leader & sexual athlete of the old Workers’ Revolutionary Party, used to assert that advanced alien civilisations must necessarily be communist which is good to know, though it makes laggardly Earth a bit of a galactic embarrassment). Not that I wish to sound too much like the Cambridge school of history, but I think the ’45 minutes’ and such like were for the consumption not of the public but of the Parliamentary Labour Party. A way had to be found to allow New Labour MPs to cram that gnat on top of the various camels already swallowed.

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