The Archbishop, Oedipus, and the Golden Ass

Tony Blair’s support of dictators and his remorselessness in launching the Iraq war shows his lack of scruples.

Tony Blair claims to have believed that Iraq posed an imminent threat, despite evidence to the contrary [EPA]

In late August, at a leadership summit in Johannesburg, anti-apartheid hero Archbishop Desmond Tutu refused to share a platform with Tony Blair. Citing Blair’s role in the immoral invasion of Iraq, he suggested that the former British prime minister belonged in the dock at The Hague, not on the international speakers’ circuit. Blair accused the Archbishop of repeating a “canard” and invoked the authority of “independent analysis” to assert that his mistake was honest and that he had been misled by bad intelligence.   

If true, this should absolve him of moral responsibility for the war. One can make a reasonable argument that one’s honest mistakes or good intentions release one from moral culpability for the unintended consequences of one’s actions. But do they also exempt one from remorse?  

In Sophocles’ immortal work, when Oedipus, the king of Thebes, discovers that the man he once killed in self-defence was his father and that the woman he married and sired four children with is his mother, the consciousness of his own innocence does little to ameliorate his guilt. Fate as an excuse offers little solace when the consequences of one’s actions are so terrible. Oedipus puts out his own eyes.   

Tony Blair on the other hand has used an impenetrable wall of humbug to insulate himself from remorse and preserved his eyes for Mammon. With his government pedigree as a calling card and his prodigious capacity for bullshit as a resource, he trots the globe, selling snake-oil for exorbitant sums. 

He has divested himself of guilt by adopting the logic of dreams which Freud (as noted by Slavoj Zizek) illustrated with a joke about a man who is accused by his neighbour of returning a damaged kettle. His defence: “In the first place, he had returned the kettle undamaged; in the second place, it already had holes in it when he borrowed it; and in the third place, he had never borrowed it at all.” 

In the first place, Blair genuinely believed Iraq posed an imminent threat; in the second place, Saddam was a tyrant who needed removing regardless of the WMDs; and in the third place, Iraq is so much better off than before the invasion.  

By choosing one, Blair might have convinced some; by marshalling all three, he has indicted himself. Blair piles on less out of stupidity than necessity. Obfuscation is necessary because none of Blair’s arguments stand up to scrutiny.  

Britain’s pre-war awareness

By July 2002, the British government knew that the Bush administration was resolved to invade Iraq and that “intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy”. Yet, in two dossiers published later in the year, the Blair government would itself fix facts to allege, one, that Iraq had purchased uranium from Niger, and two, that Iraq could launch an attack on Britain in 45 minutes.

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It was soon established that the 45 minutes claim was not supported by any intelligence and it has since emerged that the Niger claim was based on the same forged documents which had been repeatedly rejected by the CIA, the DIA, and the US Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR). Unsurprisingly when Bush repeated the Niger allegation in his 2003 State of the Union address, he could only quote the “British government”, since his own intelligence agencies had refused to endorse the claim.  

These are the facts usually marshalled to indict Tony Blair. Incriminating though they are, they leave a lot of room for Blair to wriggle through. We have evidence that leaves no doubt about the British government’s pre-war awareness. 

It is a fact that by early 2003, British intelligence had established that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction or a weapons programme. In several secret meetings in Amman with Iraqi intelligence chief Tahir Jalil al-Habbush, the head of MI6 for the Middle East Michael Shipster had already received detailed reports on the absence of Iraq’s weapons. 

This story was confirmed by former MI6 chief Richard Dearlove to Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Ron Suskind who recounts it in considerable detail in his book The Way of the World. According to Dearlove, the meetings happened with the full knowledge of Bush, Cheney, George Tenet and Tony Blair. After the war, Suskind reveals, Habbush was resettled by the CIA and paid $5 million in hush-money to prevent him from undermining the official narrative.   

The second claim – that Saddam had to be removed because he was a murderous dictator – would be less incredible if the person making it were not Tony Blair. Blair’s affinity for tyrants is well-documented. His cozy relations with Muammar Gaddafi are well-known; and it has now emerged that at the time Blair was contemplating war on Iraq, he was also considering a knighthood for Syria’s Bashar al-Assad

The protestations about promoting democracy abroad also ring hollow when one considers Blair’s contempt for democracy at home. He waged his war in defiance of the wishes of two thirds of the British public.   

The third claim – that Iraq is better off than it was before the invasion – relies entirely on the credulity and amnesia of the British media. It also erases the immeasurable human cost of the war, which in the first three years alone had killed over 654,965 Iraqis (in a survey which the British Ministry of Defence’s chief science adviser Sir Roy Anderson had called “robust“) and displaced five million more. 

‘Pillion passenger’ with the US

On the eve of war, Iraq had been devastated first by the war against Iran, then by the 1991 Gulf War, and finally by 13 years of crippling sanctions. The sanctions were described by the former UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq, Dennis Halliday, as “genocidal”; he resigned in protest. 

His successor Hans von Sponeck, who also resigned, has described the sanctions’ effects on Iraqi society in harrowing detail in his book A Different Kind of War. A whole generation of Iraqis grew up malnourished, undereducated and impoverished, dependent on the same tyrant whom this policy was ostensibly targeting. Medicine was scarce and, according to the medical journal Lancet, infant mortality rates rose from the pre-Gulf War low of 4.7 per cent to 10.8 per cent by the year 2000. 

There was enough awareness of these consequences inside the United States for the House Democratic Whip David Bonior to denounce them as “infanticide masquerading as policy”.   

Blair knew all this. For him to compare Iraq’s economy today with the ruins to which he had helped reduce it by the eve of the invasion is the rhetorical equivalent of a man who strangles a child, violates his mother and then brags about the health of the new baby he has helped her conceive.   

Tony Blair, however, will not be seen in the dock anytime soon. The International Criminal Court serves at the pleasure of the Security Council; and as long as Britain and the United States retain their vetoes, neither will agree to refer a serving or retired leader to the court, especially when both states were fully complicit in the crime. (And a crime, he certainly knew it was, since both his attorney general and foreign secretary had warned him that the legal case for war was bunk).  

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But it will be unfair to pin the blame for the decision to invade Iraq on Tony Blair. The man was no more responsible for that decision than a hitchhiker is responsible for his benefactor’s final destination. In the immortal words of a Chatham House report, he was a mere “pillion passenger with the United States“; unperturbed by the likely retaliation to which he was exposing his own population, he appeared more concerned with retaining his access to the White House. 

Blair presumed that his proximity to Washington had turned him into an actor on the world stage, but he was never more than a bit-player, a getaway driver for a neocon heist. And Washington treated him with appropriate contempt. His illusions of indispensability were shattered early when Donald Rumsfeld declared that British support was superfluous to Washington’s business in Iraq.   

In his book Plan of Attack, Bob Woodward reports that when Blair defied British public opinion and pledged to support Bush’s war against Iraq, the US president told his spin doctor Alastair Campbell, “Your man has got cojones”. Few in Britain would have disagreed. Cojones – or bollocks – have a different connotation in the UK; and everyone here knows that Blair is full of it. 

Warning on terrorist retaliation

Ahead of the war, Blair’s intelligence agencies had warned him that his decision to invade Iraq would increase the probability of terrorist retaliation. In July 2005, when the blowback finally hit London’s transport in a criminal attack which killed many civilians, Blair forwent self-reflection and used the occasion for introducing a raft of draconian measures to quash dissent. 

Muslims in particular became the target. Alliances were forged with Israeli security forces to advise British police in counter-terrorism tactics, and the London Metropolitan Police was quick to demonstrate its newfound skills in spotting “suicide-bombers” by killing an innocent Brazilian electrician.   

Blair’s record on Israel-Palestine was worse than Thatcher’s, and his Conservative successors have proven less craven than he. In 2006, when Lebanon was being vandalised by the Israeli juggernaut, Tony Blair was alone in standing by the US to protect Israel from censure at the UN. 

He caused much embarrassment in Britain when, responding to the undignified call of his American masters (“Yo Blair!”), he agreed to serve as the midwife to what Condoleezza Rice had described as a new Middle East’s “birth pangs”. 

“Blair’s conviction in God seems about as real as his faith in
Iraq’s WMDs.”

Blair’s record however did not prevent the Quartet from appointing him its envoy to Israel-Palestine; and the Quartet’s concerns appear not to have stood in the way of Blair’s personal ambitions. According to an investigation by respected British journalist Peter Oborne, while Blair has done little in his role as envoy to alleviate Palestinian suffering, he has used his position to secure multi-million pound contracts for his international consultancy Tony Blair Associates.  

Unconvincing though it may be, Blair’s performance of earnest intensity still has an audience among the patrons of vaudeville. Perhaps it was wrong to search for his analogue in the elevated realms of Greek tragedy. Blair is no tragic hero, or even a thespian. He has his real parallel in Latin farce. 

Like the buffoonish narrator of Apuleius’ Golden Ass, Blair played with dark powers to grow himself wings, in the hopes that the heady winds from across the Atlantic would one day lift him up to the sun. Instead, he accidentally turned himself into a donkey. Apuleius’ Golden Ass eventually returned to human form through a religious conversion. 

Blair has also had one of his own, embracing Catholicism. But his conviction in God seems about as real as his faith in Iraq’s WMDs. It serves a purely functional purpose. It helps him harness the authority of religion to shift the debate from the realm of objective evidence into the realm of subjective belief and defer blame onto a supreme being who is as likely to speak as the Red Sea is to part.   

Unlike Blair, however, no one has ever doubted the faith or integrity of the good Archbishop. His words, sharp as a whip, are sure to have flayed the haunches of the Golden Ass. If there are still people in the world willing to part with five or six figure sums to listen to this surrogate warmonger’s banalities, let us not condemn them. 

Let’s wish them more audiences with Tony Blair. As global civil society continues to investigate the means for his prosecution, we can at least rejoice in the diminishing wealth of the morally autistic fools who consider asinine effluvia a worthwhile investment.   

Muhammad Idrees Ahmad is the editor of and a Senior Lecturer in Journalism at De Montfort University. 

Follow him on Twitter: @im_pulse