Monday, February 1, 2010

The Consummate Politician

I witnessed former British PM Tony Blair address the Iraqi enquiry on Friday 29 January 2010. It was a commanding performance that was put up by the former premier, and I could not help but think with a certain amount of (grudging) admiration how he could defend a decision to go to war with Iraqi on seemingly scanty evidence of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), which subsequently turned out to be inaccurate and factually incorrect. It was a decision which made and continues to make him extremely unpopular, because he placed thousands of British troops into harm’s way (more than 179 British soldiers have lost their lives). In his own words, Tony Blair said to the inquiry that he felt “responsibility, but not a regret for removing ..Saddam Hussein..I think he was a monster, I believe he threatened not just the region but the world...”

Three observations can be made of Tony Blair’s handling of the inquiry. First, a shift of premise – the former premier shifted the discussion from going to war because of WMD to going to war because the world would definitely be a safer place without Saddam, who would have developed a WMD capability as a matter of inevitability. This shift was also from an operative assumption that because the former Iraqi leader had used WMD in the past, there was every reason to assume that he would do so again. From the presence of WMD, Blair’s justification shifted, very subtly to a dictator who refused to co-operate with UN inspectors, and the dictator’s persistent failure to come clean with his WMD, or the lack of them.

Second, Blair succeeded in abstracting a larger question and justification other than the one he was immediately confronting before the inquiry. He relied on religious fanaticism and tied it to 9/11, remarking that 9/11, which killed 3000, had changed everything. “If those people inspired by this religious fanaticism could have killed 30,000, they would have....After that time, my view was that you could not take risks with this issue at all...”

Third, he diverted attention from himself to his Attorney General’s legal opinion – which provided cabinet the justification for going to war, without seeking a further UN resolution. In the process he praised his (then) AG Peter Goldsmith as a ‘lawyer’s lawyer’. The opinion tipped the balance in favour of an Anglo-American effort which bypassed international support and consultation. Note the times he made reference to UN resolution 1441 to define it as the supporting premise to take on Saddam Hussein. Lawyers will argue about the lack of a legal basis to support a war effort. Until 2003, Foreign Office lawyers had taken the view that fresh UN authorisation was needed, in order to justify a use of force against Iraq. This was also the view of the AG. It would be recalled that Lord Goldsmith later said that Resolution 1441 was compatible ‘in principle’ with the use of force, but there was an important qualification to the advice – the opinion was based on a further determination that Iraq was in material breach of its obligations of co-operation with UN inspectors. This was a determination that was asked of the then Prime Minister, and the PM confirmed this determination.

Regardless of whether you supported or criticized Britain’s decision to wage war against Iraq, the former PM’s recent appearance before the inquiry panel was a display of veritable political skill. What amazed was not only the poise of Blair throughout the questioning, but also his composure and the ease of articulation. What must have made it difficult was the fact that so many families and loved ones of fallen soldiers were in the immediate vicinity, either protesting outside, or congregating in the same room as Blair. Blair also used his facility of language to answer many (unfortunately) open-ended questions that were asked by inquiry members. For example, his explanation that decisions at that particular point of history were not based on absolutes but on the calculus of risk. This could very well find its way into the lexicon of many a director in a boardroom.

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