Tony Blair: An Honest Fool

Patrick Tyler, reporting in The New York Times, avoids misusing the word "vindication" in the way that I just heard reporters on NPR abusing the term.

The Hutton inquiry has cleared Tony Blair of deliberately misleading the public, which can only mean that the Prime Minister misled the public accidentally — out of his own incompetence and gullibility — hardly a resounding "vindication."

The undisputed facts, even before Lord Hutton began his investigation, were these:

1. During his campaign to lead Britain into war with Iraq, Prime Minister Blair claimed that Saddam Hussein was capable of launching a chemical and biological attack within 45 minutes.

2. This claim was probably then, and conclusively now, ridiculous and wholly unsupported by the facts. Mr. Blair made a false claim and therefore misled the British people. The only question was whether he did so deliberately.

3. Blair cited British intelligence as his source for the 45-minute claim. On Sept. 24, 2002, he told the House of Commons that a dossier provided by British intelligence: "concludes that Iraq has chemical and biological weapons, that Saddam has continued to produce them, that he has existing and active military plans for the use of chemical and biological weapons, which could be activated within 45 minutes … and that he is actively trying to acquire nuclear weapons capability."

These facts inescapably placed both Tony Blair and all of British intelligence in Reagan's Bind. They had staked their reputations on a claim that was demonstrably false. This leaves two and only two options: 1) malice, i.e. they were lying, or 2) incompetence, i.e. they were foolish.

There is no third option. Reagan's Bind does not allow for "vindication," only for varying forms of condemnation.

The BBC, which was strongly criticized by the Hutton report, seems to have made an error in judgment. They staked their journalistic reputation on the premise that British intelligence was not incompetent and that Tony Blair was not a naive fool.

The intelligence dossier was woefully, laughably inaccurate — and inaccurate in ways that directly served Blair's political aims. BBC reporter Andrew Gilligan therefore leaped to the plausible and reasonable conclusion that the dossier was deliberately "sexed-up." Gilligan and his supervisors at British Broadcasting seemed unable or unwilling to consider the alternative — that their nation's security was in the hands of a bunch of reckless, myopic incompetents.

Now, after months of investigation, Lord Hutton has concluded that this was, in fact, the case. The ridiculous claims, exaggerations, inaccuracies and whole-cloth fabrications in the British intelligence dossier were the result of honest error, not of dishonest scheming.

The Hutton Report therefore offers harsh criticism of the BBC for inaccurately assuming that Blair and British intelligence were capable of doing their job, and little criticism of Blair who stands, "vindicated" as an honest fool. The Prime Minister is untrustworthy because of incompetence, not because of malice.

"Obviously in the short term, Blair is greatly strengthened by the report because it eliminates accusations of bad faith and impropriety," said Sir Malcolm Rifkind, foreign secretary during the former Tory government of Prime Minister John Major.

Blair has been proven guilty of the kind of carelessness that would get a bus driver fired. Yet as a politician, he is "greatly strengthened." Explain to me why this makes any sense at all.

  • drieux just drieux

    My complements for citing the Reagan’s Bind Problem.
    There is the minor Nit in all of this, in that Blair’s Major Ally, President Bush, finally and openly repudiated the 16 words from the 2003 state of the union, and with that basically put Blair in the box that Blair either had been foolish, like President Bush, to use what was known to be questionable intel, or more sinister than President Bush by going with a marketting programme he could not deliver on.
    Thank GOD that in the USofA there is no such threat from back benchers calling for an enquiry into whether or not the President had at any time been near information, or should be held accountable for any assertion that the President has Made with regards to the “Growing” and “Gathering” threats that are out that which clearly should be addressed by someone.

  • Glenn Condell

    I’m sorry but I’m going with malice over incompetence (though knavery is a better match than malice for me). Bush incompetent? No stretch. Blair? Nuh. He knew alright… if you and I were so sure they were bullshitting, I expect Blair had at least an inkling. No it was cowardice and cravenness and weakness, not honest error.
    At least he’s having to pay a price for his mendacity; Bush sails on, feathers hardly ruffled and our bloke Howard has received an even bigger free pass from our Murdoch dominated press corpse.
    Right thru this whole mess, from 911 on, the integrity of British journalism and political institutions has led the way. Notions like duty, responsibility, honour, honesty… they’re not yet passe in the Old Country… thank God.
    Thanks to them we can all see the hollow centre under Blair’s pin stripes. Try and imagine the reaction had Blair plumped for the flight-suit option at war’s ‘end’. It’s impossible, for good reason.

  • http://www.roadtosurfdom.com/surfdomarchives/001900.php The Road to Surfdom

    Yes there are two paths you can go by

    Hutton has reported and so has Fred….

  • http://www.signposts.org.au/archives/2004_01_29-bbc_you_misled_us.php signposts

    BBC – you misled us

    So, let me get this right. The BBC had sources that told them that British Government had ‘sexed’ up the weapons of mass destruction 45 minutes readiness claim. Ok, so they are quite rightly getting told off and even their chairman has resigned saying …

  • S Whiplash

    Based on sypmtoms, and the best available diagnostic evidence, and with the concurrence of colleagues, a surgeon operates on a patient to discover the patient suffers from an ailment different to that diagnosed. The patient is somewhat debilitated by the surgery but after a lengthy period of rehabilitation recovers. Is the surgeon guilty of malice, or, incompetence?

  • invalid analogy

    Surgeons operate with informed consent.

  • Scott Cattanach

    If said surgeon removed a kidney saying its cancerous, but it turned out to be just a spot on the Xray film, I win millions in a malpractice suit.
    Besides, whether Iraq “recovers” is still an open question – we don’t know how the situation will turn out.

  • Scott Cattanach

    The surgeon loses his license.

  • Karen Underwood

    What price is Blair paying??
    The spin on ABC Nightly News last night was, again, “vindication.” Soundbites of Blair in Parliament getting a huge ovation.
    The Beeb’s chairman has resigned and all the Sturm und Drang is about “the darkest day the BBC has ever had;” “the future of the BBC.”
    Think he’s been taking Thatcher lessons?

  • Alan

    And what of a surgeon who decides the operation is too difficult and leaves the patient unsutured on the operating table while skips he out to run for president of his local golf club?

  • E Lake

    Hutton’s background in respect of Northern Ireland is very interesting as described in this article from today’s The Guardian (Jan 29th):
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/hutton/story/0,13822,1133901,00.html
    Tonight I was at a book launch with several antiwar journalists/activists, and the feeling was that Hutton’s verdict is “perverse” in the legal sense – that he has disregarded the evidence to such an extent that his findings may be challenged by judicial review.
    And setting aside the question of Hutton’s extremely narrow remit, the wider questions about the putative “intelligence failure” and the breach of international law by the UK in attacking Iraq have yet to be answered.
    UK public reaction in the media (texts to tv stations, polls) seems to be overwhelmingly in support of the BBC, in addition to which quite a few BBC staff walked out in support of Greg Dyke both in London and at regional BBC stations around the country.
    I don’t think Blair has done himself any favors with this one. He may want to “draw a line” under it, but it isn’t going to go away, particularly as we approach the first anniversary of the invasion in March.

  • S Whiplash

    Just trying to point out that an action that produces an undesirable or unintended result need not have arisen out of either malice or incompetence.

  • Fred

    Snidely –
    The trouble here is that Blair’s claims — such as the astonishingly false, yet oddly specific 45-minute threat — are not the equivalent of a doctor responsibly examining “symptoms and the best available diagnostic evidence.” They are the equivalent of grossly negligent malpractice.
    Not every undesirable or unintended result implies Reagan’s Bind, but I don’t see any other way of explaining Blair’s carelessness in this case.

  • http://www.miketodd.ca/web/archives/000861.html Waving or Drowning?

    not deceitful… just stupid

    I’ve been reading about Tony Blair and his WMD fiasco. Over at signposts Phil’s been posting here and here, and

  • oh

    I’m basically with Whiplash. This new definition of “incompetence” feels like the new definition of “liar.” Now we’re supposed to believe that, for a person like Blair to make a competent choice, they must ignore the intelligence reports of nations around the world. To my knowledge the only national intelligence agency that suggested there were no WMD was in Iraq.
    Certainly the left believed there was WMD. The threat of their use was central to their arguments for not going to war. The classic “we’ve got the receipts” arguments for assuming the weapons existed was cited by even such credible journalists as…Slactivist.
    The bind you’ve created for Blair’s is real of course. Unless he is omniscient he in incompetent. Competence, in this new definition, would require the capacity to trust Saddam despite the advice of those who devote their lives to gathering intelligence. That’s a bind.
    Would you have found Blair more competent if he hired “Baghdad Bob” as his security advisor and claimed divine insight into the state of Iraqi weapons? And what if the intelligence agencies had been wrong in suspecting that less WMD development had occurred than actually had – as they often have been in Iraq, Iran, Libya, and North Korea – just to name a few. It sounds like the new “competent” leader must be graced with the capacity for divine insight. Pat Robertson for President anyone?
    Here’s a bind. How can we choose to act competently in the world since we cannot base our decisions on any perfectly reliable sources of information?
    Leaders are, despite our deepest wishes, still human. They are left to make decisions with the evidence left before them. Some, of course, choose to ignore the evidence even then – how many people, for example, still think that Castro’s repression is much more benign than Saddam’s was? They both rule/ruled by terror. The failure of the left to perceive the real nature of communist societies, despite the evidence, was what started the neo-con movement from the left to the right in the first place. It’s increasingly evident that a significant number of folks are more committed to being anti-American rather than supporting the human rights of the most oppressed.
    Blair responded to these accusations well and a simple substitution of the notion of “lying” for “incompetence” makes the case. Blair said, “The allegation that I or anyone else lied to this House or deliberately misled the country by falsifying intelligence on WMD is itself the real lie.” The accusation of incompetence is, in this case, an act of incompetence.
    Such incompetent journalism, leads, at it’s best, to apologies such as those the BBC made to Blair today, “On behalf of the BBC, I have no hesitation in apologizing unreservedly for our errors and to the individuals whose reputations were affected by them.”
    At it’s worst such incompetence leads to passivity in the face of grave threats – and graves themselves like those of David Kelly – and mass graves like those in Iraq, Russia, and Germany.

  • Scott Cattanach

    “Now we’re supposed to believe that, for a person like Blair to make a competent choice, they must ignore the intelligence reports of nations around the world.”
    Bush/Blair made _specific_ allegations that they couldn’t back up – other people believing Saddam probably had ‘something’ doesn’t cover their asses. That, and while everyone else may have assumed Saddam wasn’t clean, nobody else agreed that there was a situation that required an immediate invasion.

  • Scott Cattanach

    So how come the War Party only cares what the rest of the world thinks (“they thought Saddam had WMD, too”) now, and not before their war?

  • Jesurgislac

    Whiplash, the analogy you’re looking for is this.
    Doctor USA insists that an operation is necessary. Most of his colleagues disagree that it’s necessary, or disagree on the method Doctor USA intends to use. Doctor USA claims that he has seen definite evidence of malignant cancer: he shows the evidence to other doctors, who find it questionable. However, Doctor USA gets Doctor UK to agree to take part in the operation. After the operation, with the patient seriously ill as a result of the operation, and the long-term health of the patient still very much in doubt – it’s uncertain whether the patient will recover, even, and it’s certain that permanent damage has been done – it’s revealed that the evidence that Doctor UK and Doctor USA used to justify the operation was faked, and clumsily faked at that.
    Either Doctors UK and USA knew the evidence was faked, and lied when they said they believed it, or they were too incompetent to recognize faked evidence when they saw it.
    Either way, whether the doctors were lying because they wanted to carry out the operation, or were not lying but were too incompetent to recognize faked evidence when they saw it, the end result should be identical: both doctors should be deprived of their license to practice medicine. Permanently.
    If they were competent but lying, a criminal conviction would also be approaching, whether or not the patient survived and got better.
    Now do you understand?

  • Fred

    Josh –
    What you say would be true if this:
    “Thay had the stuff in the ’80s and they may have something now.”
    Were the same as this:
    “They definitely have specific things and we have specific facts and therefore we’re going to take the world to war.”
    Can you really not see the difference?

  • Glenn Condell

    Jesurgislac wins the prize for closest analogy so far, but I would add that his/her scenario assumes, or at least allows, a professional disinterest on Doctor USA’s behalf, even an eager desire to serve. This is demonstrably false… Doc USA and his staff have been spruiking the benefits of removing this man’s kidney for years without disclosing their various, often vested, interest in doing so. Under these circumstances, the probity of his/her examination of and judgment on the ‘evidence’ must in itself be examined.
    As J says ‘Either way, whether the doctors were lying because they wanted to carry out the operation, or were not lying but were too incompetent to recognize faked evidence when they saw it, the end result should be identical: both doctors should be deprived of their license to practice medicine. Permanently.
    What Whippy and the natural apologists amongst us are suggesting is that we are holding our leaders to too high a standard. The rest of us disagree. I do wonder though whether their laissez-faire attitude to accountability would have been quite so obvious had the President’s name been Clinton or Gore.

  • S Whiplash

    Perhaps I did not make myself clear regarding my anology: I was not trying to make the perfect analogy for the Iraq war and Bush’s (or Blair’s) role. I was simply trying to describe a similar state of affairs wherein an actor might, through the application of information supplied to him, produce unintended or undesirable results. Such an actor might have acted apppropriately in the circumstances and be guilty of neither malice nor incompetence. It’s simple, really.
    If Glenn Condell wants to react by going all frothy and hyperbolic, I’m not surprised, that’s typically how he reacts when someone disagrees with him.

  • Tuxedo Slack

    So what you’re saying is, Glenn Condell is just too shrill?

  • E Lake

    to oh upthread:
    I don’t think you understand the context of the battle that has been going on within the BBC – that “unreserved apology” was made by Lord Ryder, a member of the board of governors. Ryder is a Conservative. Greg Dyke refused to go to those lengths – so he lost the backing of the board/was pushed out.
    The actions of a large number of BBC journalists, technical and administrative staff who walked out (in one case even took a local radio station off air for a symbolic minute) in support of Greg Dyke reflects very strongly the feeling within the organisation (also echoed in many internal BBC emails read out at the meeting I was at and in public opinion) that
    Hutton’s conclusions are bollocks. Anyone who’s trawled through the evidence posted by the inquiry itself (http://www.the-hutton-inquiry.org.uk/content/evidence.htm)
    can see with their own eyes that Hutton has wilfully disregarded much of it in Blair’s favour.
    Colin Powell waved some of the UK govt’s “intelligence” on Saddam’s putative WMDs, which it had plagarised out of an old PhD thesis – as spotted by Univ Cambridge academic Glen Rangwala – and described it as “exquisite” before the UN. That may be your standard for going to war, but it’s not mine.
    On the notion that governments must be excused from error because they are not omniscient – maybe that would have some traction if Blair and Bush had not lied us into war, but they did. They have engineered a pro-active, concerted breach of international law, and unfortunately we’ll all reap the consequences.

  • oh

    How about a different analogy?
    Before I buy a car I consult with my professional intelligence sources (Consumer Reports, etc.). They agree that a certain car is the best on the market for my needs. Having discovered a broad consensus among all available intelligence sources I tell my wife that “the professional intelligence sources say that this car is the best.” She lets me buy the car.
    Years later a defect appears that causes all of these vehicles to be recalled and scrapped.
    Was I incompetent in my decision-making in buying this car?
    Would I have been more competent if I had simply flipped a coin?
    Is the goal of others who assert my car buying process was incompetent designed to convince me that in the future I should just flip a coin and avoid consulting the professionals? I think I’ll run for office on the platform of “no consultations with polls or professionals – just gut instinct every time.”
    I think concluding that my decision-making process is “incompetent car buying” is the result of incompetent analysis.
    Is all Slactivist and others really demanding careful prefacing of every assertion a public official makes if that assertion is not based on their personal experience? If every assertion begins, “Based on the broad consensus of world experts in this field we believe that they definitely have specific things and these experts tell us we have specific facts and therefore we’re going to take the world to war.” Would that assertion have been acceptable? If so does the handful of statements removed from the context of the administration’s larger acceptance of the research of the world’s intelligence agencies really merit the level of vitriol and accusation?
    Having been in Iraq I can (based on personal experience) assure you that, for the people of Iraq, Saddam himself was a WMD. It is time for dictatorship to be declared a crime against humanity. It is time for those who are advocates for the rights of people living under totalitarianism to pursue more aggressive means of intervention (particularly non-violent ones).
    Those most committed to ignoring, or tolerating, the domestic WMD of totalitarianism are the leaders of multinational corporations. Dictators like Saddam rule by terror. Terror is a very effective tool in crushing organized labor – or any organized resistance to government policies. Many in the Western world, corporate CEOs and anti-war activists alike, would prefer to exploit the terrorized people and resources of totalitarian nations rather than take the risk of provoking change. Global democracy is the best means to check corporate power.
    For the people of Iraq, and those previously (and currently) living under communist domination, the problem was not that the US overreacted – rather the surgery was, for many, decades too late. It is time for dictatorship to be declared a crime against humanity. It is time for those who are advocates for the rights of people living under totalitarianism to pursue more agressive means of intervention (particularly non-violent ones).
    Those most committed to ignoring, or tolerating, the domestic WMD of totalitarianism are the leaders of multinational corporations. Dictators like Saddam rule by terror. Terror is a very effective tool in crushing organized labor – or any organized resistance to government policies. Many in the Western world, corporate CEOs and anti-war activists alike, would prefer to exploit the terrorized people and resources of totalitarian nations rather than take the risk of provoking change.

  • oh

    sorry for the two extra paragraphs at the end

  • Fred

    Josh–
    I’ll repeat the question:
    Do you accept that there is a difference between:
    “Thay had the stuff in the ’80s and they may have something now.”
    And:
    “They definitely have specific things and we have specific facts and therefore we’re going to abandon precedent with a pre-emptive war.”
    The former can be, and apparently was, an honest mistake. The latter is arrogant and careless to the point that it falls under Reagan’s Bind.
    Re: Reagan’s Bind — It’s rather annoying that you continue to pretend I have anywhere suggested this is a universal principle to be applied to all matters everywhere. Please stop doing that. I write enough stupid things on my own without you inventing more on my behalf.

  • oh

    Fred,
    In response to your question: Certainly those two sentences are quite different.
    How about returning the favor and responding to my question? Does the sentence, “Based on the broad consensus of world experts in this field we believe that they definitely have specific things [WMD] and these experts tell us we have specific facts and therefore we’re going to take the world to war” escape the bind?
    Sorry for my over application of “Reagan’s bind” – although, after all, it was only a car analogy. I find it interesting that you rejected the application of the principle to the analogy rather than dismantling the analogy itself. Should I assume that principles like “Reagan’s Bind” apply only when they serve the purposes of making someone you’re attacking look like they’re saying stupider things than they actually are? This selective application truly would be a bind.

  • Fred

    You’re up late — even on PST.
    I’m sorry that there’s something wrong with the link to the original post explaining RB — getting that fixed will help clear up any unintentional misunderstanding about the concept.

  • Jesurgislac

    Glenn, thanks for the compliment. I agree with you that “Dr USA” has shown a certain amount of self-interest in wanting to operate: my point was that even if we allow, as Bush supporters would prefer, that Bush was acting out of a professional desire to serve, it still does not let him escape Reagan’s Bind.
    Before I buy a car I consult with my professional intelligence sources (Consumer Reports, etc.). They agree that a certain car is the best on the market for my needs. Having discovered a broad consensus among all available intelligence sources I tell my wife that “the professional intelligence sources say that this car is the best.” She lets me buy the car.
    Oh, Oh. That’s a fake analogy. A better analogy, using your terms: You want to buy a new car. There is a specific car you have in mind. Your wife has doubts about it. You bring home reports from various authorities, carefully eliminating everyhing except the positive: you don’t show your wife the many negative/dubious reports, and you don’t tell her that in fact there were many negative/dubious reports about the car you want to buy. She looks at the positive reports you’ve shown her, and agrees that the car looks like a good buy.
    As soon as it’s yours, it becomes obvious that all the dubious/negative reports about it were wellfounded. It’s expensive to run, it breaks down easily, it’s hard to drive, there’s no way it can be said to suit your needs.
    Now, at minimum, you’re guilty of being foolishly gullible because you wanted this car so much. Better to admit that to your wife and apologize right away… than to have your wife look into all the reports that were available about this car and discover that the faults were clearly reported in material available to you – that you didn’t show to her.
    Was I incompetent in my decision-making in buying this car?
    Yes.
    I think concluding that my decision-making process is “incompetent car buying” is the result of incompetent analysis.
    No, it is the result of looking clearly at how you bought the car and how you persuaded your wife to help pay for it. Either you were gullible, or you were dishonest. One or the other.

  • spud

    “After the operation, with the patient seriously ill as a result of the operation, and the long-term health of the patient still very much in doubt…”
    I’m no neo-con but I must ask us to go back to the “Doctor” analogy for a moment. Have we forgotten to mention the fact that the International Doctor Board (UN) had long acknowledged that the Patient (Iraq) was seriously ill, inflicting self harm (gassing the Kurds, mass graves, etc.) and a (at least past evidence of a) danger to others (Saddam’s invasions and attacks) and that it gave (surprisingly) unanimous permission to Doctors USA and UK to explore the necessity of an operation? The International Doctor Board had been medicating (sanctions) the Patient now for 10+ years and there was no clear sign that the Patient had been rehabilitated. The examination (resumption of UN inspections) was allowed by the Patient only once he realized that an operation could be eminent. We may question everything about the timing, the intelligence, the “operation” itself, but let’s not pretend that the patient was well.
    By the way, the NYT this morning published a few of the statements some of you are looking for in the article “Administration’s Message on Iraq Now Strikes Discordant Notes” By DAVID E. SANGER.
    Here are a few highlights:
    BUSH: “some prewar intelligence assessments by America and other nations about Iraq’s weapons stockpiles have not been confirmed…. We are determined to figure out why.”
    POWELL “It was the stockpiles that presented the final little piece that made it more of a real and present danger and threat to the region and the world…. The absence of a stockpile changes the political calculus.”
    RUMSFELD: “What we have learned thus far has not proven Saddam Hussein had what intelligence indicated and what we believed he had, but it also has not proven the opposite.”
    TENET: “When the facts on Iraq are all in, we will be neither completely right nor completely wrong.”
    The NYT article concludes, “But then again, intelligence collection is not a precise science. And in the end, its findings merge with the necessities of politics and power.”
    PS: Fred, the tone of your accusation… “Reagan’s Bind — It’s rather annoying that you continue to pretend…” is more annoying than anything that “oh” wrote.

  • Scott Cattanach

    spud, Saddam’s evil behavior happened when we were supporting him, and stopped 10 years before Gulf War II.

  • Jesurgislac

    Spud: for ten years Doctor US stood by and watched benignly, supplying lethal drugs, as the patient Iraq committed self-harm and harm to other patients. (So did Doctor UK, and several other international doctors.)
    Then for ten more years, Doctor US and Doctor UK imposed lethal medication on Iraq that patently harmed rather than helped the patient – the sanctions and the no-fly zones. Some of this was with the consent of Doctor UN, some without.
    After twenty years of active harm, Doctor US proposes an arbitrary course of action that Doctor US claims will finally “cure” the patient. Doctor UN has several different courses of action proposed, but Doctors US and UK plunge ahead regardless, heedless of all other medical advice, and damn nearly kill the patient.


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