UK paperback


Blair on Saddam

Excitingly, Tony Blair has at last let us know what we should think about the execution of Saddam Hussein:

The manner of the execution of Saddam was completely wrong, but…


…that should not blind us to the crimes he committed against his own people, including the death of hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis, one million casualties in the Iran-Iraq war…

If, to Blair, Saddam is responsible for the deaths in the war he started against Iran, would it not be consistent for Blair also to hold himself and George W. Bush responsible for the deaths that occurred in the war they started against Iraq? I’m only asking.

…and the use of chemical weapons against his own people…

Of course, it is only ever justified to use chemical weapons against other people, as UK and US forces have done against Iraqis. (Update: see further discussion in comments.)

…So the crimes that Saddam committed does not excuse the manner of his execution, and the manner of his execution does not excuse the crimes.

This peculiarly clumsy straining for a kind of Solomonic balance, with its clunky chiasmus and poor grammar (“the crimes…does not excuse”), is yet another example of pure fiction about purported “extreme” points of view. As WIIIAI notes perfectly, it’s:

a statement which gives the illusion of even-handedness, while suggesting that those who complain about the way the lynching was carried out (or even those who oppose the use of the death penalty, which Blair seems not to have done) are somehow using it to “excuse” or forget his actions, a position taken by no one in the entire world.

But let’s backtrack a bit to Blair’s denunciation of the hanging itself. It was “completely wrong” (not just a little bit wrong) – and, of course, “unacceptable”:

As everybody saw, the manner of the execution is unacceptable and it’s wrong but…


…we should bear in mind and not allow that, while saying it’s wrong, then to lurch into a position of forgetting the victims of Saddam.

Heaven forbid that anyone so lurch. Blair’s use of “unacceptable”, however, is interesting. Gordon Brown had earlier called the execution “completely unacceptable”, not just a little bit unacceptable. But Blair, too, loves to say things are unacceptable – indeed, things are often “completely unacceptable” to him too. For Blair, it is “just completely unacceptable” for a parent to shout at a teacher; it would be “completely unacceptable” “for people to be persecuted because of their religious beliefs”; the situation in Darfur is “completely unacceptable”. “Abuse” of Iraqi prisoners by “coalition” troops? Well, “if it’s happened”, it’s “completely unacceptable”. Trouble in Belfast in July 2001 was “completely unacceptable”, and what about the fact that less than 60% of fines in the British criminal justice system are enforced? You’re right: that’s “completely unacceptable”. Demonstrations against the Terrorism Bill Danish cartoons last year? Yep, “completely unacceptable”. And there is this terrifying picture: “Young people out of control, excluded from school, are left free to roam the streets causing misery and mayhem in local communities” – and that’s “completely unacceptable”.

You get the idea. It must be trying for Tony to find so many things so unacceptable. By coincidence, George W. Bush, too, has lately been finding more and more things “unacceptable”, as shown by R Jeffrey Smith’s excellent Washington Post article. Smith’s suggestion that Bush’s resort to “unacceptable” is a sign of frustration at the fact that “all manner of circumstances are not bending to his will” might equally be applied to Tony. Let us hope he finds serene acceptance soon, perhaps when he leaves office.

  1. 1  dsquared  January 10, 2007, 12:59 pm 

    I’m told that baby consultants at McKinsey are very strongly warned against words like “unacceptable” or “essential”, because if something is unacceptable and it turns out you can’t get rid of it (or if it’s essential and it turns out you can’t get it), then the conclusion is inescapable that you’re fucked. Or, you have to admit that it wasn’t actually unacceptable or essential in the first place and you were lying.

  2. 2  Steven  January 10, 2007, 1:16 pm 

    That’s very interesting, and just goes to show that modern politicians still have a lot more to learn from management consultants.

    (Btw your long-awaited Freakonomics review is a delight, at least to the extent that I understand it.)

  3. 3  Leinad  January 10, 2007, 1:53 pm 

    When did the US use chemical weapons against the Iraqis?

    …And furthermore, I’ll have you know that the RAF has absolutely never mustard-gassed the Iraqis, and when I say ‘absolutely never’ I mean not since 1927!

  4. 4  Steven  January 10, 2007, 2:20 pm 

    In Fallujah, though there is, it is true, disagreement about whether white phosphorus counts as a “chemical weapon”, an “incendiary device” or a “conventional munition”. Seemingly the legal position comes down to a question of intent: according to the spokesman for the Chemical Weapons Convention:

    “It’s not forbidden by the CWC if it is used within the context of a military application which does not require or does not intend to use the toxic properties of white phosphorus. White phosphorus is normally used to produce smoke, to camouflage movement.

    “If that is the purpose for which the white phosphorus is used, then that is considered under the Convention legitimate use.

    “If on the other hand the toxic properties of white phosphorus, the caustic properties, are specifically intended to be used as a weapon, that of course is prohibited, because the way the Convention is structured or the way it is in fact applied, any chemicals used against humans or animals that cause harm or death through the toxic properties of the chemical are considered chemical weapons.”

    In fact the US military used it more more than merely to “camouflage movement” – indeed, they reported [pdf] using it as a “potent psychological weapon”. And they called it a “chemical weapon” when reporting that Saddam might have used it in 1991. So then: it’s a chemical weapon. But, of course, not by that token inherently more wrong than many “conventional” weapons.

  5. 5  Graham Giblin  January 10, 2007, 2:48 pm 

    Excuse me but Tony Blair is so far up himself that he is about to come out the other end; he and everyone else who has been saying “It was wrong BUT…”
    It’s the opposite of “damning with faint praise”. Praising with faint damnation. Who on earth are they afraid of offending? These people (Blair, Howard etc.) by pulling their punches, by not unreservedly execrating not only the manner of the execution but also judicial murder* itself are giving executive permission for, even actively encouraging, the conversation about a return to barbarity and fundamentalist righteousness.

    Poor Tony. What had him so tongue-tied for so long? I wonder if he’s beginning to feel crushed by a slow realisation of the enormity of the, what Jon Stewart calls, “Catastrophuck” he unleashed.
    * Even Prime Minister John Howard himself actually called capital punishment “judicial murder” in a radio interview, so I’m in good conservative company.

  6. 6  Leinad  January 11, 2007, 12:34 am 

    I’m sorry to take this discussion away from the repulsive, obsequious disingenuity of Tony Blair – a worthy topic if ever there was one, but Steven’s determination that the US used ‘chemical weapons’ at Fallujah I find to be uncharacteristically inaccurate.

    The CWC defines a chemical weapon as a weapon that is “dependent on the use of the toxic properties of chemicals as a method of warfare” (Article II, Definitions, 9, “Purposes not Prohibited” c.) and a toxic chemical as one that: “which through its chemical action on life processes can cause death, temporary incapacitation or permanent harm to humans or animals”.(CWC, II). White Phosphorus’ effects are physical, viz. “you are on fire” and for this reason it was not listed on the CWC Annex of Toxic Chemicals.

    Intent doesn’t enter into it – it’s not a chemical weapon whatever the OPCW wants to say about it’s proper use.

  7. 7  Steven  January 11, 2007, 9:01 am 

    White Phosphorus’ effects are physical, viz. “you are on fire”

    But it achieves this effect through “its chemical action”. Nonetheless, I accept as in #4 that this is a matter of interpretation, and you are of course entitled to disagree with OPCW’s interpretation of CWC. (Similarly a matter of interpretation, for instance, is the question as to whether “cluster munitions” should be considered landmines). In any case I do not accept Blair’s implicit premise that using “chemical weapons”, in contrast to, say, “cluster” bombs or DU shells or a MOAB, is a particular sign of evil.

  8. 8  Graham Giblin  January 11, 2007, 10:32 am 

    I think the joke is that the test of whether a weapon is a chemical weapon is the intention. “Intention” can’t properly be tested. Intention is a thought (and so in itself in a way chemical). So the defence is simple. “We never meant to hurt nobody. We just wanted to scare ’em a little”. A tragic, and defensible, accident…

  9. 9  Steven  January 11, 2007, 10:40 am 

    Well, I’m sure the friendly lawyers among my readers will be eager to point out that “intention” is often explicitly a legal test, eg of the difference between manslaughter and murder. But the question of what particular function of a weapon one intended to use, I suppose, is even nicer. If I am on trial for stabbing someone and claim that I only intended to brain him with the hilt of the knife, I probably won’t get much sympathy.

  10. 10  Chris Ellis  January 11, 2007, 12:10 pm 

    Blair’s words, read or heard, typically cause completely unacceptable furniture-thumping in this house, so it’s a tribute to the wit and lightness of your article that it kept me smiling.

    The repeated phrase ‘manner of his execution’ presupposes the execution itself and puts it beyond question, so Blair escapes condemning the death penalty and neatly avoids offending al-Maliki, who said he would review relations with countries that are critical of Iraq’s use of capital punishment.

    But the chiasmus leads Blair seriously astray, and I’m not so inclined to help him out as WIIIAI is when s/he glosses ‘excuse’ as ‘forget’. No, the reason that no one in the entire world needs warning away from using Saddam’s execution as an excuse for his crimes is that the argument wouldn’t make any sense at all. Surely the content of an excuse must relate to what precedes the misdemeanour. What would it mean to plead as an excuse for being drunk in charge of a car that you were about to lose your licence?

    There is an interesting (and beautiful) counter-example to my claim in William Carlos Williams’s justly famous THIS IS JUST TO SAY, which also, as it happens, touches on justice, as the pun in its title reveals. The third stanza begs forgiveness (for eating the plums that were in the icebox) and then, naturally, offers what I take to be an impossible excuse, for exactly when would one know that the plums were sweet?

    Forgive me
    they were delicious
    so sweet
    and so cold

    Of course, this has nothing to do with Blair’s drivel, but so much the better.

    (Shame that this site is introducing a line space before ‘and so cold’ — at least in the preview).

  11. 11  Steven  January 11, 2007, 12:20 pm 

    Nice – the poet is arguably saying: “You should forgive me because I derived such pleasure from the commission of the crime”, which I doubt would hold much sway with a judge (but IANAL etc). This reading is not irresistible, however, owing to the ambiguous lack of punctuation. You could choose to read it alternatively as “Forgive me. They were delicious etc…”, ie a hasty and not-very-sincere request for forgiveness before returning to luxuriate in the sensuous reminiscence.

    The repeated phrase ‘manner of his execution’ presupposes the execution itself and puts it beyond question, so Blair escapes condemning the death penalty and neatly avoids offending al-Maliki, who said he would review relations with countries that are critical of Iraq’s use of capital punishment.

    That’s an excellent point: thanks.

  12. 12  Alex Higgins  January 11, 2007, 5:30 pm 

    The CWC defines a chemical weapon as a weapon that is “dependent on the use of the toxic properties of chemicals as a method of warfare” (Article II, Definitions, 9, “Purposes not Prohibited” c.) and a toxic chemical as one that: “which through its chemical action on life processes can cause death, temporary incapacitation or permanent harm to humans or animals”.(CWC, II).

    This is a matter of debate, but I think Steven is accurate in defining White Phosphorous as a chemical weapon under this definition.

    WP was designed and deployed specifically for its life-destroying chemical properties – its advantage to those engaged in killing people is that not only does it burn off the skin, but that it cannot be washed off and even immersing yourself in water is insufficient to prevent it from searing off your flesh once stuck to you.

    If WP is deployed as an offensive weapon (as opposed to use in combat flares, for instance), then it is surely properly labelled a chemical weapon.

  13. 13  Leinad  January 12, 2007, 1:12 pm 

    WP’s life-destorying properties come from its chemical interaction with oxygen: it burns. Hence, the primary life destroying effect isn’t chemical poisoning – as with every other chemical weapon – but instead the incineration of those in its effective radius and their asphyxiation due to WP sucking the oxygen out of their surrounds.

    This is why the OPCW didn’t put it on the CWC’s annex of toxic chemicals in the first place. When used as an offensive weapon, WP is in every sense an incendiary; with the definition Alex has proposed, one might as well class napalm or dynamite as a ‘chemical weapon’.

  14. 14  Steven  January 12, 2007, 4:33 pm 

    This article is an interesting technical discussion of the issue.

  15. 15  Bare Life « An und für sich  January 13, 2007, 7:18 pm 

    […] The same could be said of many of the terms of “French theory” that have, in American hands, become little more than sophistocated-sounding ways of carrying on a moralizing discourse — as if we needed Foucault to tell us that prison is a bad place to be, or Agamben to tell us that our government is doing wrong by terrorism suspects (even those who are factually guilty). Moralizing discourse has its place, and it can be more effectively carried out using plain language. Theoretical discourse is something else: an analysis of how those unacceptable situations arise — which may or may not help us to come up with ways to change things such that they won’t. […]

  16. 16  Not Saussure  January 15, 2007, 12:48 am 

    According to the BBC,

    White phosphorus is covered by Protocol III of the 1980 Convention on Conventional Weapons, which prohibits its use as an incendiary weapon against civilian populations or in air attacks against enemy forces in civilian areas.

    The US – unlike 80 other countries including the UK – is not a signatory to Protocol III.

    Not sure what that makes it, other than thoroughly unpleasant stuff.  

    The reason, though, I came to post a comment — if I may return the discussion briefly to the Dear Leader — was to point out, in the interests of accuracy, that if you read his remarks carefully it was the demonstration about the Danish cartoons he called ‘completely unacceptable’ rather than the demonstration against the Terrorism Bill.

  17. 17  Steven  January 15, 2007, 12:59 am 

    You’re absolutely right; sorry about that.

hit parade

    guardian articles

    older posts