Two decisions, not one

by Daniel on April 25, 2005

I’ve just been watching the Newsnight item on the Attorney General’s advice furor, and it seems to me that this issue is a lot more clear cut than people are trying to make it. Blair keeps saying “look, I had to take that decision”. But there were two decisions taken in the first quarter of 2003, with the intelligence they had, the legal advice they had, and a UN resolution not coming along as fast as wanted. Those decisions were:

1. The decision to get rid of Saddam
2. The decision to sell decision 1 to the public by misrepresenting the evidence.

With regard to the first decision, there is a case to be made that it had to be done, and that it had to be done right then. As regular readers know, I don’t agree with this case, but it can be made forcefully.

But the second decision … well, there’s no defending it, is there? The war might have needed to be fought, but it didn’t need to be lied about. Tony Blair controls the British Army, not us. He could have fought that war on the basis of Saddam having to go. And it would have cost Labour votes, so he didn’t sell it that way; he took a gamble on the likely existence of WMDs and lost. So in other words, decision 2, was a decision that had nothing to do with saving the Iraqis; it was a decision to mislead the British public in order to help the Labour Party’s electoral chances. Somebody took that decision; very false claims were certainly made and they weren’t made by accident (or by mistake).

There’s no justifying that, is there?



lemuel pitkin 04.25.05 at 5:14 pm

So why is this filed in “Academia”? rather calls into question the pretty picture a few posts down.


Anderson 04.25.05 at 5:35 pm

Ah, but had Blair not lied, the public would have rejected the war (oh wait, they did anyway). Tony Blair, philosopher-king, had to lie nobly to lead the people to do the right thing.

—No, really, I’ve heard American conservatives argue this about Bush. Blair needs some Straussians to cheer him up!


Daniel 04.25.05 at 5:39 pm

Ah, but had Blair not lied, the public would have rejected the war

Yeh, but the law of the land is that he can fight it whether we reject it or not; all that would happen would be that he might lose the next election. The current position appears to be “the noble goal of getting rid of Saddam might have been worth a few dozen of you buggers’ lives, but it’s not worth my job!”


Daniel 04.25.05 at 5:41 pm

So why is this filed in “Academia”?

Because it’s the default option (alphabetically) and I always forget to change it until after the bloody thing’s posted. Sorted now, thanks.


George 04.25.05 at 5:58 pm

It’s wise to separate the issue like this. Too many discussions of the war get bogged down by slipping from one question to the other.

That said (and I am not saying this merely to provoke) I am not aware of any out-and-out lie that was said by either Bush or Blair, or their staffs, on any matter of substance, leading up to the Iraq war. By “lie” I mean “the deliberate staement of something known at the time to be false,” and not some kind of “reckless disregard for the truth” standard (which, I’ll admit, could be easier to demonstrate in a couple of cases). As we all know, Bush and Blair said some things that were based on poor evidence and have now been shown to be completely wrong, particularly regarding WMDs. (They also said a few correct things, even about WMDs.) But as far as I know, no one has shown that either Bush or Blair *knew* they were false at the time.

Really, I don’t mean to be obnoxious here. Correct me if I’m wrong; it’s possible I missed something in the past two years. I also don’t follow British politics as American, so maybe you are speaking specifically of Blair. Still, I’d like to know what evidence you have that either of them did in fact make a decision to lie.


ed_finnerty 04.25.05 at 6:05 pm


There are things which were said we could easily be lies but the information to determine this is not available. For example, it could easily be true that GWB and TB knew that the Niger documents were forgeries before March 21, 2003 or that the aluminium tubes were not for WMD purposes. We don’t know because the documents are classified. On the other hand, we don’t know that they aren’t lying either.


Daniel 04.25.05 at 6:08 pm

I am not aware of any out-and-out lie that was said by either Bush or Blair

Fun facts; it’s the devil’s own job to find an out-and-out lie from Ken Lay or Jeff Skilling. I work in the financial industry, which operates on a “reckless disregard” standard. I really don’t see why it should be a graver matter to float a company on the London Stock Exchange than to start a war.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, the first thing I learned in accounting class was that the distinction between “provably making a statement you know to be false” and “acting so as to create a false impression and not correcting it” is not one you should rely on to keep you out of jail. If someone’s asking me to give him the monopoly of the legitimate use of force against me, why should I operate on a standard weaker than Sarbanes/Oxley?


kenny 04.25.05 at 6:19 pm

” I’d like to know what evidence you have that either of them did in fact make a decision to lie.”

Blair on the 24th sep 2002 in the house of commons

“The intelligence picture they paint is one accumulated over the past four years. It is extensive, detailed and authoritative.”

JIC report on 9th sep 2002 :-

“Intelligence remains limited”

JIC report on 15th march 2002 :-

“Intelligence on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile programmes is sporadic and patchy”

Blair certainly knowingly did not tell the truth about the quality of the intelligence.


almostinfamous 04.25.05 at 7:35 pm

i was at a conference this weekend where David Kay was a panel, who mentioned that most of the intel info used by the Bush admin to justify the WMD argument was totally unverified/unverifiable, pointing to the example of the bio-chemical trucks as an example.
seeing as that man was in the know as the shiz was going dowm, it has to be said that they quite clearly misrepresented the accuracy of their data, if not necessarily the data itself. but thats getting down to semantics. The FOTM is that there was no intellectual integrity on the part of either administration when selling this war, and there was no effort made to make the opponents of the war understand.


almostinfamous 04.25.05 at 7:37 pm

before anyone says it;no david kay did not suddenly turn into a piece of wood, he was a panelist.. thats what you get when you’re in a hurry and there is no preview function….


george 04.25.05 at 8:46 pm

Thanks for responding. But when you suggest GWB and TB were “acting so as to create a false impression and not correcting it” (a decent working description of politics in general, btw), I think you are creating an impossible standard. You’ve already said you think the decision to go to war was wrong, so any attempt to “sell” it as legitimate — by, for instance, emphasizing the potential benefits and justifications while disclosing but downplaying the risks — creates a false impression, and so is tantamount to lying.

Look, I don’t want my leaders lying to me any more than you do, but I don’t think they did so in this case. I think they gave a pretty thorough and balanced case for why we needed to go to war. (Some of their planks have since proven to be faulty, but on balance it’s still a compelling case.) You and many others just disagreed with their reasoning. Fair enough; that’s why we have elections. It’s interesting that most people who claim that Bush & Blair lied are fully cognizant of the facts themselves, but think other people have been fooled. Yet I don’t know anyone who will admit to having been themselves fooled.

I work in the finance industry myself; I’m an investment banker. We and our clients operate under a rigorous set of regulations regarding disclosure, which must be not only full but also not misleading. I agree with you fully that it would be a much better world if governments had to act under the same rules they set for corporations — or even use the same basic accounting guidelines. But they don’t.


B.K. Moran 04.25.05 at 9:12 pm

But they should.


Uncle Kvetch 04.25.05 at 9:15 pm

Look, I don’t want my leaders lying to me any more than you do, but I don’t think they did so in this case. I think they gave a pretty thorough and balanced case for why we needed to go to war. (Some of their planks have since proven to be faulty, but on balance it’s still a compelling case.)

With all due respect, George, I haven’t the faintest idea what you’re talking about. There were not multiple “planks” in the run-up to the war, at least on the US side. There was one plank: WMDs. We were told the war was about Saddam’s stockpiles of WMDs. Period. And the WMDs weren’t there. If you prefer to believe the war was really “about” other things, that’s your prerogative. But we weren’t told any of those things; we were told about a clear and present danger to the security of the American people–a danger, that, in fact, did not exist.

As for the “lying” question, I could come up with any number of quotes in which Cheney, Rumsfeld, Powell, etc. talked about their absolute, unshakeable certainty regarding the WMDs–not just certainty about their existence, but about amounts, locations, etc. All of it was false–every last bit of it. So if it wasn’t just one great pack of lies, it was clear evidence of a positively staggering level of incompetence.

Your doggedness in attempting to salvage some shred of credibility for Bush & Blair is almost admirable…if I forget for a moment just what it is you’re seeking to justify.


ed_finnerty 04.25.05 at 9:36 pm

Actually, I think there is an easy way to assess TB’s motivations. Do you think that if he knew for certaain that SD had no CBN’s he would have withheld the support for the US action.

If not he was committed and looking for justification.

If so he wasn’t lying in the wider sense of the word where lying includes misleading.


P O'Neill 04.25.05 at 9:44 pm

If there’s ever a divergence between GWB and TB’s interests down the road, it’s somewhat likely that the new White House spin would then be “we only cooked up the WMD stuff because we thought the Brits wanted it for a legal war.”


tad brennan 04.25.05 at 11:12 pm

I agree with Uncle Kvetch that prior to the war there was one and only one plank: Saddam’s alleged possession of WMDs (along with the subsidiary allegation, equally false as it turns out, that he was actively coordinating with Al Qaeda on their dissemination).

I have to say, to my shame, that I actually bought it; I actually listened to people talking about “the smoking gun being a mushroom cloud”, and nodded vigorously with a sage frown of concern on my face. That’s what kept me from going out into the streets to protest the whole wretched thing (that and general fecklessness).

Since we’re on the topic of intellectually dishonest post-hoc rationalizations, can I mention another one that gets up my nose? It is the claim that “everyone believed the same thing”. You hear this as another variation on “Clinton did it too”–the claim that Clinton believed Iraq had WMD, and so did France, and so did etc. etc.

The implication is that since everyone had the same belief, the difference in action arose because the other people were paralyzed by fear or indecision, but the Rove/Bush/DeLay gang was fearlessly able to act on their belief.

This seems to me to involve an appallingly crude understanding of “belief”, and what it means to have the “same belief”. It suggests that everyone shared the same subjective probability assessment of Iraq’s possession of WMD, and this strikes me as highly dubious.

If John thinks he may have left the gas on and frets about it all day, whereas Jean thinks she may have left the gas on and drives straight home to check, do we really want to say they have the *same* belief? Don’t we want to say, at the very least, that they were assigning different probabilities to the gas’s being on?

I don’t want to go all behavioralist here, but it does seem to me that beliefs have to have some connection to action, and that differences in action are frequently indicators of differences in belief.

Clinton et al. had *some* reason to think that Iraq had WMD, and assigned *some* probability to its actual presence there. Probably far less than 1.0, if they were listening carefully to the actual evidence.

The fact that Clinton (or the UK, or France, or whatever) did not say that those WMD’s created a justification for invastion may have something to do with his sense that they were already safely contained.

But it may also have had something to do with some doubt on his part–a doubt that anyone, looking at the evidence we now know was available, should have had–about the WMD programs in Iraq: whether they were still in operation, how large they were, whether there were stockpiles, how large they were, etc. etc.

I don’t think I’m putting this very well, but it does seem to me that there is a massive dishonesty wrapped up in the post-hoc claim that “everyone believed the same thing”.


roublen vesseau 04.25.05 at 11:24 pm

yup. Blair may have been forced into war, basically to preserve Britain’s reputation with American conservatives, but he wasn’t forced to lie about WMD, and if he was going to go along with the war, he had an absolute duty to make sure that the plan for the post-war was sane, noncorrupt, and well-thought out for every contingency. Not to do that is a firing offense, and is close to unforgivable.

That said, I’d still vote Labour if I were eligible, because Blair & Labour are the only ones who seem to support foreign aid for Africa, which is the biggest humanitarian issue of our time by several orders of magnitude. Blair deserves to lose, but the Liberal Democrats do not deserve to win.


george 04.26.05 at 12:14 am

Uncle K, that’s just not true. There was plenty of discussion, pre-invasion, of at least the following: (1) SD’s continuing defiance of UN resolutions requiring his verifiable disarmament, (2) how horrible SD was to his people, (3) how democracy in Iraq could be a beacon to the rest of the Mideast, and (4) how SD cooperated with terrorists, possibly including al Qaeda. These are not just post-hoc justifications, they were part of the rationale for going to war. Many showed up in Bush’s 2003 SOTU speech, if I recall. Granted, they have become more prominent now that they have all (to varying degrees) been borne out, while the other main rationale for the war (WMDs) has been shown to be wrong. But it’s incorrect to say that none existed before the war.

Tad Brennan: I think you’re misstating the consensus on Iraq’s WMDs. Everybody *did* think he had them. Even his own generals did, when we interviewed them after the war. Tommy Franks has relayed how Arab leaders told him flatly that SD would use chemical weapons on US troops. Bill Clinton popped up on TV somewhere in late 2002 and said something like “it is incontrovertible that Saddam Hussein had WMDs on the day I left office.” That was in January 2001.

In other words, there was no significant difference of opinion on the matter of Saddam’s WMDs. It was as close to common knowledge as these things get — and like much common knowledge, it was flat wrong. David Kay himself said as much after coming up empty in the post-war search for WMDs. “We were all wrong.” It was on the cover of Newsweek, if I recall.


Christopher M 04.26.05 at 3:18 am

George —

Thanks for sticking it out here in comments. Reading moderate disagreement is always helpful to thinking things through.

I think you’re holding politicians to too low a standard, though. You’re surely right that, as a matter of fact, politicians shade the truth and attempt to mislead without lying. But that doesn’t mean we should throw up our hands and resign ourselves to that kind of thing. Popular opposition to being mislead is precisely the mechanism, or one of the mechanisms, by which democratic politics ends up being a relatively decent way to run a country, at least compared to the alternatives.


Darren 04.26.05 at 5:52 am

With regard to the first decision [removal of Saddam Hussein], there is a case to be made that it had to be done, and that it had to be done right then.

Err, isn’t war for regime change illegal?

Perhaps the people’s peer Elizabeth Wilmshurst will tells us.


Kevin Donoghue 04.26.05 at 6:21 am

David Kay himself said as much after coming up empty in the post-war search for WMDs. “We were all wrong.”

Kay is fond of saying that sort of thing. He was wrong and wants to believe everyone else was too. But back in October 2002, Putin embarassed Blair by saying “Russia has not in its possession any trustworthy data that could support the existence of nuclear weapons or any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.” Blair replied: “You will have to eat your words.”

Not everyone was wrong. But that is not the important point. In most parliamentary democracies it is a serious matter to mislead the legislature, even if this is done without making statements which can be shown to have been lies. Blair certainly misled the House of Commons about the quality of the evidence.


John Quiggin 04.26.05 at 6:42 am

While most people held a fairly high subjective probability before December 2002 that Saddam had lots of WMDs, for anyone rational that probability declined sharply once he readmitted inspectors, and declined further as the inspectors searched sites nominated by the US and UK as part of the weapons program and found nothing. At the same time, the probability that Bush and Blair were lying rose steadily for anyone who was paying attention.


Brian 04.26.05 at 7:32 am

I’m not sure why anyone should even _care_ whether Bush and Blair knew that what they were saying was false. It seems a perfectly reasonable rule that when you are trying to take a country to war, you are strictly liable for the truth of the reasons you give. Even if you had perfectly good grounds to believe those reasons, I don’t think that should be a sufficient excuse given the magnitude of the action being contemplated. My rule is that any politician who takes their country to war on false premises, even false premises sincerely and reasonably believed, should lose their job.

Most of this dispute has the pro-war side treating the act of giving the reasons for war as like the act of giving a casual friend advice on a basically irrelevant matter – as long as you don’t knowingly lie it’s all OK. And some of the anti-war side, either out of politeness or because they agree, say that no no it’s more like the act of a company director giving advice on a small financial matter. I’m sure much of that is that people are in this case certain that Bush and Blair don’t meet even that lower standard. But there is some interest I think in getting the standard right.

Of course my rule will mean that some well-intentioned politicians will lose their jobs through no fault of their own. But when we go to war based on false reasons, many soldiers and civilians lose their lives through no fault of their own, so I’m not going to grieve for the unemployed pollies.


lemuel pitkin 04.26.05 at 7:50 am

I think you’re misstating the consensus on Iraq’s WMDs. Everybody did think he had them.

One additional lyaer of deception here — admittedly one that can’t really be laid at Bush/Blair’s feet — is the inherently dishonest nature of the term WMD. nuclear weapons in Saddam’s hands might be a legitimate basis for war; chemical weapons — which haven’t been used on a batlefield in 90 years for a reason — would certainly not be.


Uncle Kvetch 04.26.05 at 7:54 am

Excellent comment, Brian. I can’t add anything to that.


RS 04.26.05 at 7:58 am

“Err, isn’t war for regime change illegal?”

Fortunately the legality of an action has minimal impact upon its morality.


ktheintz 04.26.05 at 8:30 am

We didn’t go to war because Iraq had WMDs. We went to war because the inspectors were on the verge of finding that he didn’t.


bob mcmanus 04.26.05 at 9:30 am

“While most people held a fairly high subjective probability before December 2002 that Saddam had lots of WMDs”

It is very important to recognize the cost/benefit analysis here. If an analyst or diplomat or politician were to say Saddam might have WMD’s, and were to be proven wrong, there would have been little or no career consequences, as we have seen. OTOH, if an analyst, without absolute certainty, were to say Saddam had no WMD’s, and then WMD’s were discovered or even used, a career would likely have been ended.

This explains why “everyone” predicted WMD’s, and an even marginally useful press should have noted this bias.


KCinDC 04.26.05 at 9:57 am

George W. Bush, State of the Union address, January 29, 2003:

We will consult, but let there be no misunderstanding: If Saddam Hussein does not fully disarm for the safety of our people, and for the peace of the world, we will lead a coalition to disarm him.

Now, by the strict rules of logic that does not imply that the US won’t invade if Saddam does disarm, but it certainly implies it by the normal rules of discourse.


Kosh 04.26.05 at 10:07 am

Lying comes as naturally to those in the Bush administration as breathing does for most folks. The “normal rules of discourse” don’t apply here. But they’re lying to you for your own good. No, really!


Elliott Oti 04.26.05 at 12:41 pm

“This explains why “everyone” predicted WMD’s,”

“Everyone” did no such thing, with respect to nuclear capacity. Secret services do not publish newsletters about their findings: they communicate them to their governments. The governments of France and Germany did not talk or act like Saddam had nukes (and being geographically closer to Iraq had more reason to worry if that were the case. In countries with pro-war governments such as the UK and Denmark and even the US there was a spate of unprecedented leaks in late 2002\early 2003 from current and former members of the intelligence services displeased with their governments’ presentation and interpretation of the available evidence.

Chemical weapons are another matter entirely; the surprise at not finding even one chemical warhead genuinely surprised most observers, including the Coalition which, faced with a paucity of evidence for real WMD in 2003, decided to fudge the issue by broadening the definition of WMD to include first chemical and biological weapons, and when no sign of even these turned up, the desire to manufacture them at some unspecified point in the future.


mpowell 04.26.05 at 6:41 pm

I’m not sure if you can defend decision number 2, but this is not the first time we’ve seen this. I think any time a leader takes actions that he should know will lead to war, but claims otherwise to his public, he is engaging in this kind of deception. Both the Wilson and FDR administrations did this before WWI and WWII. History has been rather kind to these leader’s reputations, however. Perhaps it is the case that we feel the end does justify the means. Remember, although Blair may technically have the power to chose to go to war in Iraq, it may prove impossible in practice w/ too much public opposition.


George 04.27.05 at 11:45 am

Last comment to a dying thread, prompted by mpowell: this whole thing reminds me of Eric Alterman’s work When Presidents Lie. I’m no fan of Alterman, but his book is a reasonably balanced account of the consequences of deception, whether for “bad” purposes (LBJ) or “good” (FDR). (Whether Reagan falls into the first or second category is still being worked out.)


Darren 04.29.05 at 5:36 am

RS “Fortunately the legality of an action has minimal impact upon its morality.”

Doesn’t this sort of thing call into question that statement?

Comments on this entry are closed.