Retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu refused recently to appear with former prime minister Tony Blair at the Discovery Invest Leadership Conference in Johannesburg. Tutu did not want to speak alongside a leader who had lied.
"If leaders may lie, then who should tell the truth?" asked Tutu.
The lie in question was the formal US-UK justification for the invasion of Iraq: that "intelligence assessments" had established that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMD).
Both Blair and ex-president George W Bush corrupted their intelligence agencies in order to lay the legal groundwork for their disastrous war.
In reply to Tutu, and apparently without blushing, Blair referred to Tutu's accusation as a "canard". According to Blair, "every single independent analysis of the evidence" has established that he and Bush did not lie about the intelligence.
Human rights violations
One wonders which "independent analyses" Blair has been reading. Clearly, the WMD issue was whipped up to legitimate an invasion taken for a range of reasons.
"Blair dreamed of an international order based on law and liberal values, in which warlords and barbarians would be punished for their crimes."
It is curious nonetheless that Tutu appears most concerned about the lie. A strategic attitude towards the "truth" is a requirement for successful leaders, especially but not only in politics.
In this respect, Discovery Invest would seem to have chosen well. Blair is to speak alongside chief executive officers from Tesco (the UK mega-grocery store chain), Goldman Sachs, and other captains of industry and finance. In past years, speakers have included a world surfing champion turned business guru with his own clothing brands, a tobacco and alcohol executive who "expanded into foreign markets", and Sir Richard Branson.
Why is an anti-apartheid campaigner like Tutu not more worried about appearing alongside a roster of capitalists, at a conference celebrating capitalism, held in the immediate wake of the police killings of striking miners? Whatever his faults, Tony Blair was a popularly elected social democrat.
Finance capital has caused far more human suffering than the insane venture in Iraq, and not only in recent years. Discovery Invest's leadership award would seem to be a poster child for the "entrepreneurs" who have devoured democratic South Africa and deprived its people of hope for better lives.
In this privileging of human rights violations associated with armed conflict over those concerned with economic and social justice, Blair and Tutu actually share much in common.
Tutu invokes the human rights toll of the Iraq conflict. He cites numbers of people killed and displaced by the war. He demands that Blair be tried by the International Criminal Court (ICC). He goes on to accuse Blair of dividing "God's family" and failing to contribute to mutual understanding among the major monotheistic religions.
Blair, of course, is a deeply religious man, converting to Catholicism after he left office. Under Blair, the UK was one of the original signatories of the Rome Statute that established the ICC. Blair dreamed of an international order based on law and liberal values, in which warlords and barbarians would be punished for their crimes.
In his response to Tutu, Blair also invokes the human rights tally associated with Iraq. He cites the numbers killed by Saddam during his oppressive rule and the Iran-Iraq War. He reminds us that Saddam used chemical weapons against his own people. Blair even evinces a touching concern for the fate of the "Marsh Arabs" under Saddam.
Great historical divides
On the positive side, Blair notes that today Iraq has a child mortality rate a third less than before the war. (He does not mention that it was the UN-sponsored sanctions regime of the 1990s that helped kill off Iraq's new born babies at an alarming rate). He cites improvements in Iraq’s economy, "with investment hugely increased in places like Basra".
Although Blair at least mentions the economy, this is an argument between two men who share the same premises. The human rights that matter are those associated with war and armed conflict, not the everyday realities of mass suffering caused by poverty, joblessness and the "creative destruction" of the entrepreneurs feted by Discovery Invest.
"Desmond Tutu needs to reconsider just who the great purveyors of lies and human suffering are in the contemporary world."
Indeed, Blair and Tutu share a vision of world politics as an epic struggle between good and evil (as opposed to one mainly about the dull compulsion of economic exploitation).
Forgetting the great historical divides of imperialism, World War II and the Cold War, not to mention 9/11, Tutu accuses Bush and Blair of "destabilising" and "polarising" the world "to a greater extent than any other conflict in history". Sounding like Blair scolding former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic over Kosovo, Tutu accuses the Anglo-American leaders of being "playground bullies". He even blames them for the current situations in Iran and Syria.
Blair himself was a master of drawing overblown historical analogies. He equated failure to stop the "evil" of ethnic cleansing in tiny Kosovo with appeasing Hitler. He insisted that "we cannot turn our backs on conflicts and the violation of human rights within other countries". In his landmark speech in Chicago in 1999, he enumerated the criteria by which the international community was justified in intervening into countries run by "bullies".
Driving entire populations into poverty and joblessness was not among these criteria, but ethnic cleansing certainly was. "We must not rest until it is reversed," Blair intoned. "If we let an evil dictator range unchallenged, we will have to spill infinitely more blood and treasure to stop him later."
As far as Milosevic and Saddam were concerned, this comment is nothing but bombast equal to Tutu's. However, allowing finance capital and big banks to range unchallenged and unregulated certainly has cost Western governments vast amounts of treasure. As for blood, just how much sweat and tears, hopelessness and stunted lives, among millions suffering in the Great Recession of recent years, equate to some few thousands killed and displaced by petty warlords?
Desmond Tutu needs to reconsider just who the great purveyors of lies and human suffering are in the contemporary world. The rest of us need desperately a new political and ethical language by which we can equate the suffering caused by the economy with that inflicted by force of arms.
Tarak Barkawi is Associate Professor in the Department of Politics, New School for Social Research.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.