UK paperback

Not how the world is

Blair: the endless desirability of war

Begging your sufferance, I belatedly turn to Tony Blair’s “defence” speech, delivered on board HMS Plymouth Albion last week, and find that, although the PM has not suddenly become any more impressive a thinker, he has at least been collecting new euphemisms. Blair rarely talks of starting wars, but scrabbles around for all kind of bureaucratic circumlocutions, from “hard power” to this particularly fine construction:

In October 2001, the Taleban in Afghanistan was subject to military action. Within two months by the use of vast airpower, they were driven from office.

Not only must the story be cast, clumsily, in the passive voice, it appears that to be bombed is now to be “subject to military action”. Interesting, this use of “subject to”. When it is said that people who break some bylaw will be “subject to” fines or imprisonment, it carries a sense of deserved vulnerability to an impersonally imposed punishment. Blair thus casts the story as the Taleban offending objective cosmic justice and paying the price. When a first-person plural finally appears, it is to celebrate our prudence: “The cost to our forces was minimal.”

Tony has also been busy rewriting history:

Eighteen months later, with Saddam consistently refusing to abide by UN Resolutions and with alarm at the proliferation of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, Iraq was invaded. This time it was more difficult and more costly. Nonetheless, Saddam was removed within 3 months, again by the exercise of overwhelming military firepower.

Notice again the passive voice: “Iraq was invaded.” You might enjoy, too, the cunning lie about Saddam “consistently refusing to abide by UN Resolutions” (he was complying with inspections, according to the inspectors themselves, until the inspectors were pulled out), and the subtle transformation of the motivations claimed by the impersonal dispensers of objective justice. Whereas it was announced at the time that Saddam specifically had “stockpiles” of chemical and biological weapons, Blair now retreats, because Saddam did not in fact have such stockpiles, to the invocation of generalised “alarm at the proliferation” of such weapons, as well as of nuclear weapons, which even the US and UK governments did not claim Saddam actually had at the time.

Meanwhile, the useful term “removed” makes another of its regular appearances, to be twinned with the use of “driven from office” for the Taleban. One may as easily be “driven from office” by a tabloid revelation as by a bombing campaign, and so war is described in terms of political business as usual. The fact that the “exercise” of military “force” or “action” involves killing people and destroying things is soothingly sidelined by these terms of abstract political machismo, “removed” and “driven”.

The main message of Blair’s speech was that Britain should not be satisfied with peacekeeping but should continue to start wars. What kind of wars? Well, it seems, any old wars. Don’t believe me? I quote:

There is a case for Britain in the early 21st Century, with its imperial strength behind it, to slip quietly, even graciously into a different role. We become leaders in the fight against climate change, against global poverty, for peace and reconciliation; and leave the demonstration of “hard” power to others. I do not share that case but there is quite a large part of our opinion that does. Of course, there will be those that baulk at the starkness of that choice. They will say yes in principle we should keep the “hard” power, but just not in this conflict or with that ally. But in reality, that’s not how the world is.

That’s not how the world is. What is not how the world is? Well, the idea that “we should keep the ‘hard’ power, but just not in this conflict or with that ally”. In other words, and please let me know if I am translating too liberally: the idea that one might carefully choose which wars are justified and which not. What a silly idea! That’s not how the world is. It’s all wars or none of them. Is this really what Blair said? I’ve read it several times and can’t find any more generous interpretation. He continues:

The reason I am against this case, is that for me “hard” and “soft” power are driven by the same principles. The world is interdependent. That means we work in alliance with others. But it also means problems interconnect. Poverty in Africa can’t be solved simply by the presence of aid. It needs the absence of conflict. Failed states threaten us as well as their own people. Terrorism destroys progress. Terrorism can’t be defeated by military means alone. But it can’t be defeated without it. Global interdependence requires global values commonly or evenly applied. But sometimes force is necessary to get the space for those values to be applied: in Sierra Leone or Kosovo for example. So, for me, the setting aside of “hard” power leads inexorably to the weakening of “soft” power.

Blair neglects to tell us which countries we will be compelled to invade in order to set the stage for the use of “soft power” in countering global warming or pandemic disease, but I’m sure that was just an oversight. War, after all, is endlessly useful, for it is the most vigorous form of talking:

When the Taleban murder a teacher in front of his class, as they did recently, for daring to teach girls; that is an act not just of cruelty but of ideology. Using force against them to prevent such an act is not “defence” in the traditional territorial sense of that word, but “security” in the broadest sense, an assertion of our values against theirs.

That’s right: bombing is moralizing speech, “an assertion of our values”. Our values are those of bombing. And we must bomb everywhere or not at all. I say to you now, we will bomb and bomb again until the whole world shares our bombing values. Thank you.

  1. […] The fabulous Unspeak takes apart the weasel words […]

  2. 2  Richard  January 17, 2007, 4:49 pm 

    not “defence” in the traditional territorial sense of that word, but… an assertion of our values against theirs.
    Isn’t this precisely what we imagine Al Qaeda to be doing? Or am I missing something here?

    Terrorism destroys progress
    Assuming we can agree on definitions for either of those terms. How delightfully 1950s.
    Finally, by the use of vast airpower, they were driven from office makes me think that enormous fans were set up in their offices, making the work environment intolerable, and not so much that huge tracts of the country were blown up or mined on the suspicion that Taliban fighters might be there.

    On the other hand, is it controversial to state that all violence is communication (as well as destruction)? Our (Tony’s) values are indeed those of bombing – them. These values certainly don’t extend to them bombing anyone.

  3. 3  Alex  January 17, 2007, 6:07 pm 

    Just a point: he was aboard HMS Albion in Plymouth, or HM Naval Base Devonport if you’re a pedant (or a sailor).

    [Thanks for the correction – SP]

  4. 4  Neil  January 17, 2007, 6:39 pm 

    All Blair’s talk of “hard” and “soft” power is reminiscent of IR theory- I wonder if he or his advisors have been studying IR 101?

    Whether or not he has, he falls into the classic philsosophical falacy of using his own preconceptions of the way the world “is” to derive the way the UK ought to act. Any student of Hume could tell you that you can’t derive an “ought” from an “is”. Blair’s “ought” seems to be “we ought to bomb Tehran”, based on the “is” of the previous invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, an “is” to a substantial extent of his own creation.

  5. 5  Steven  January 17, 2007, 11:59 pm 

    Neil – it’s very odd, because the argument of Joseph Nye’s book last year, Soft Power, was precisely that soft power does not rely on military backup, viz. Norway and Japan, etc.


    On the other hand, is it controversial to state that all violence is communication (as well as destruction)?

    I guess the problem comes when you speak in such a way as to imply that it is only communication, as indeed bin Laden has done too.

  6. 6  Andy A  January 18, 2007, 10:13 am 

    I admire the verbal forensics that go on on this blog. I’ll never read a speech in the same way again. I wonder whether every passive-voice statement is deliberately so, whether every single word, function word or active word, is scrutinised for meaning beyond its intent, so as to keep it strictly in the bounds of the message. And I wonder how many people, other than those who comment on this site and the bloke wot runs it, realise what’s going on, or whether these things inveigle themselves into the listeners’ minds at a subliminal level.

    (And I wonder why the bloody speechwriter doesn’t know where the hyphen is on his keyboard! I’m glad to note that our host is keen on the hyphen, realising, presumably, the potential its absence has for ambiguity. Four year old horses. How many horses? How old? But this is leading us into other territory.)

  7. 7  Michael  January 18, 2007, 10:51 am 

    “assertion of our values” !

    Will it every get so crazy that a spokesperson will intone something like this – ‘today in the latest security operation, a pinpoint assertion of our values occured in the vicinity of Taliban threats to our values in Southern Afghanistan……’

  8. 8  Graham Giblin  January 18, 2007, 3:39 pm 

    with alarm at the proliferation of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, Iraq was invaded

    This statement “means” that it was Iraq that was alarmed, doesn’t it? I might make sense if it simply said, “with alarm, Iraq was invaded”.
    This could be seen as flashcard oratory. All he is doing much of the time is throwing out keywords with content-free padding in between. The masses dutifully, and automatically, applaud. The padding does serve the purpose, though of blurring concepts to obtain some sort of agreement from everyone. We can all agree, for example, that weapons proliferation is a bad thing. He has nonchalantly regurgitated the nuclear weapons argument that was so conclusively and embarrassingly discredited. But by doing so he is garnering agreement to excuse his mistake – “I know we were wrong, but who can blame us? We were scared!” – without actually admitting he made a mistake at all and still hanging the non-existent proliferation threat, the cause of the war, on Iraq. Compare Blair’s sideslip on WMD here with Bush’s in the 2004 State of the Union (recommended reading in hindsight):

    Already, the Kay Report identified dozens of weapons of mass destruction-related program activities

    What I really like, though, is that the passive voice [“Iraq was invaded”] nevertheless makes Iraq, as the subject of the sentence, the agent of its own destruction. It was their own fault. They have only themselves to blame. It is a masterly evasion of responsibility by Blair. Genius, really.

  9. 9  Richard  January 18, 2007, 8:20 pm 

    The masses dutifully, and automatically, applaud

    I’m not so sure they do, these days. The funny thing is, that doesn’t seem to matter all that much, despite any amount of crowing or rueful head nodding about democracy.

  10. 10  Graham Giblin  January 23, 2007, 11:17 am 

    But in reality, that’s not how the world is.

    We learnt something about how Tony Blair thinks the world “is” in his final Queen’s Speech in November.

    “Hope’s not built on talking about sunshine any more than anti-social behaviour is combated by ‘love’.”

    And all this time I had thought that there was a strong positive correlation between a loving home life and lower levels of so-called antisocial behaviour. I suppose also that, after all, communication between people who disagree, negotiation, mediation, understanding, has no effect and that is why we need to bomb – sorry, unzip our “hard power” on – those who disagree with us.

  11. 11  dave  January 28, 2007, 2:38 am 

    Here’s another thought about Blair’s language in inveighing against leaving ‘the demonstration of “hard” power to others’. What’s going on with his use of the word demonstration here? It suggests that he is not so much concerned to use such power for definite ends, as to show it forth (as a threat, an index of commitment to values or whatever). Later in his speech he shows a concern for ‘projecting’ power:

    my choice is […] for a British foreign policy [which?] keeps our American alliance strong and is prepared to project hard as well as soft power

    Again, to talk of war as the ‘projection’ of power suggests a concern to undertake war as a valuable form of display. Use it or be seen to have lost it. A doctrine which sits uncomfortably alongside Blair’s recent call for Britain to renew its nuclear strike capability.

hit parade

    guardian articles

    older posts