Friday, 29 January 2010

The trial of Tony Blair - aesthetics and all

It's not a trial of course, it's an inquiry, though for many it should be at least a Star Chamber or a Maoist jiǎntǎo (self-criticism) at the end of which there would be a march to the killing fields with a few years of hard labour, interspersed with a daily session in the medieval stocks, and a nice Blair-shaped skull in a nice pile of other skulls somewhere at the end of it.

In my opinion, this is not very much to do with caring for the war dead of Iraq - after all there are plenty of war dead in the world to care about, to donate money to, write about and try to help. It's about a combination of other things, chiefly a hatred of Blair, which is itself a compound of various factors. It is less a logical political matter than a point of aesthetics.

Aesthetics, politics and morality make an explosive mixture. I remember a discussion in the early eighties or so when one writer friend said something in defence of Margaret Thatcher. Another writer friend replied (and I remember this with crystal clear detail): How could you? She is so ugly! He did not mean physically, of course. He meant in that aesthetic-moral-political way. He was, after all, a writer, an artist.

I remember the early Lancet report that claimed 600,000 people had died in the war - a figure that the latest count estimates as 91,000-110,000 or so, most of them not killed by the US-UK troops. Still a vast number. But the clear implication was - and continues to be - that it was Tony Blair who was personally responsible for those 600,000 deaths.

Poodle Blair and Chimp Bush, of course. I sometimes think the aesthetic end of the hatred comes from the association with the Chimp. How could a sophisticated British politician ally himself with someone so ugly? Ugliness hurts a certain cast of mind far more than morality. Morality, since the sixties, has been a relativised, subjective affair. What right have you to tell me I am doing wrong? is the key question. What is often felt is a kind of transference morality: morality on aesthetic terms. The ugly is visceral: the moral sphere takes over the visceral quality and justifies it.


I can't say I liked Blair. I was opposed at first to the Iraq war. But I did not feel it was an evil war. Like all wars, I thought - and still do think - it was the product of a variety of factors and calculations. War is a matter of gathering pace, so that after a certain stage of negotiations it becomes inevitable. That is usually at the point that the threat of military force has succeeded sanctions or other forms of political pressure. By the time a military force is actually gathered it is all but impossible to turn back. The weapons inspections process was a perfect illustration of that. Iraq admits them, then puts difficulties in their way. Pressure gathers, soon becomes military and by the time the inspectors are readmitted, the troops are on the borders. That is not to say that there have not been considerable calculations (they may well have been wrong-headed and stupid calculations, of course) before - it is just that the process, once events reach a certain stage, takes place regardless of calculations. Immediately post-war Iraq seems to me fairly clear evidence of that.

I was dubious about the question of illegality. After all, the war was primarily opposed by France and Russia, by far the two major exporters of arms to Iraq (over 80% combined). Their opposition did not seem a purely moral case to me. It seemed opportunistic to say the least. France and Russia have been the chief opponents of US influence and action anyway. Nor do I hold the UN in consistently high regard. There is an alternative suggestion of an organisation of 'democratic states'. It is a very attractive thought, albeit fraught with difficulty. Who defines democracy? What definitions do we use? Is membership permanent? Would it be like the Commonwealth or the EU from which nations could be expelled? I don't want to get into that now, it only seems to me that we cite the UN when it suits us to do so.

I have little doubt that the reign of Saddam was terrible, and that whatever is in its place is now, and likely to be, a hundred times better - if left in peace. Nevertheless, I was sceptical - and still am - about the purely moral case for regime change. Nations do what is practical. As has often been pointed out, we do not seem to be on the point of enforcing regime change on North Korea or Burma. I doubt very much whether states are primarily moral entities. On the other had, I am thoroughly glad Saddam is gone. Once the war started I supported it. Not because I support the deaths of a lot of people, but because my gut feeling is that war is war, has always been war, and that once it starts it is better to support what you consider to be the better cause. One could be a pacifist and oppose all war; one could oppose specific wars. All these are valid choices to make. In the case of Saddam's Iraq, although I consider myself to be of the western democratic left, I preferred to support the case of UK-US against Saddam. I don't think I was wrong.

So then to the core of the case. What was the war about? I think it was about a complex mix of causes. I don't accept the pure oil-grab case, though oil would have been a factor. At the time I thought it was more about the Middle East balance. I think the experience of the Iraq-Iran War and the invasion of Kuwait would have come into it. I think WMD came into it - back in 2002 most nations were of the view that Iraq had them, and was developing them. The massacre of the Kurds at Halabja with chemical weapons did actually happen.

When it came to the decision itself I imagine the government (any government making the same decision) would have regarded WMD as the issue to push. It makes a much more immediate impact than long term strategy or oil. And why push so hard if all the time you know you are going to be proved wrong? That does not make sense to me. The muddle afterwards seems to be evidence for that.


To return to Blair. I have suggested that the intensity of hatred in his case is in some sense aesthetic. Nor is the aesthetic sense always wrong. The image we like to have of ourselves - on the left at least - is of righteousness compounded of tolerance to difference combined with a passionate opposition to wrong. It is a mixture of the liberal and the egalitarian. Blair injured both these senses. After eighteen years of Tory rule he was expected to swing the balance towards the egalitarian. Things could only get better, said the song. He didn't do that. Like all prime ministers, once in power, he became pragmatic, savvy and manipulative, in the fully modern sense. Far too media savvy. That is an aesthetic insult to our intelligence (if we consider ourselves intelligent and most people do). His socialism was minimal, a matter of small social detail - in broad ideology it was no change from before - it wasn't economic egalitarianism but minor amelioration (which too is something). Otherwise the filthy rich were encouraged to remain the filthy rich. Their pips would not be made to squeak.

So there we were, enjoying a very long boom before our recent bust, all the time suspecting the principles on which the boom was built. Debt was an ugly kind of guilty pleasure. He gets that in the neck too. Nor did the financial shenanigans with Cherie endear him to us. The financial grabs were not a pretty sight. Quite ugly, in fact.

Worst of all - apart from his alliance with Chimp Bush - is his sense that he has been right along. Even about Chimp Bush. That is the biggest insult. He claims the moral sphere. Chimp and Poodle. Ugh! And see, neither of them need be human.

There is an appeal by John Rentoul of The Independent for the press to stop treating Blair as a form of bear-baiting. I am not signing it. On the other hand I don't think we live in the world as described by Steve Bell or Peter Brookes. I suspect there will be no war-crimes tribunal for either Blair or Bush and that they will both survive and probably prosper. Particularly Blair. Chimp-Poodle-Bear.

It's just that I don't think Blair was evil or even a particularly spectacular liar (no more than any other politician in a similar position). I sometimes doubt we want honest politicians. We just say we do. We hardly ever vote for them. Honesty is, by definition, not politic. I am, of course, curious as to how the war came to be and how it proceeded. That is what Chilcot is supposed to help partly reveal. The other details will follow - a few decades later. Meanwhile the carnival proceeds. The poodle's gone, the chimp is gone. The bear survives and probably will survive without my assistance.


Lucy said...

Thanks, that is very thought-provoking. The idea of objecting to ugliness like that might seem shallow and inadequate, but it isn't, if we take the trouble to really examine that reaction.

And there's much more here too, which merits a re-read...

Lucy said...

Bugger, I split an infinitive.

Poet in Residence said...

Blair cannot say it so somebody should say it for him. I will try.

A new post-Saddam pipeline from the Iraqi oilfield to Israel will make it possible for oil tankers to avoid expensive, time consuming and hazardous journeys through the Arabian Gulf and the Red Sea.

En passant, the Niger delta will be the venue for the next oil skirmish. The cease-fire is broken.
It's an absolute disgrace what's going on down there. Shell, for example, gave one ruined community - it's once fertile fields now swimming in oil waste which will never be removed - a green shed as token of goodwill and compensation, you may have such a shed in your garden. Shell told the villagers it was a new school.

Here's a solution: If the politicians, the many and various war equipment manufacturers and suppliers, the bankers, the oil men, the financiers, and all the other parasites who live off the back of war, in other words who live off death, were forced to take a cut in salary and bonuses and were forced to receive the same wages as the lowest paid front line soldier for the duration of the war there would be an end to war.

George S said...

Nigeria has become Africa's biggest producer of petroleum, including many oil wells in the Oil Rivers. Some 2 million barrels a day are extracted in the Niger Delta. Since 1975, the region has accounted for more than 75% of Nigeria's export earnings. Much of the natural gas extracted in oil wells in the Delta is immediately burned, or flared, into the air at a rate of approximately 70 million m³ per day. This is equivalent to 41% of African natural gas consumption, and forms the single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions on the planet. In 2003, about 99% of excess gas was flared in the Niger Delta. The biggest gas-flaring company is the Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria Ltd, a joint venture that is majority owned by the Nigerian government. In Nigeria, “…despite regulations introduced 20 years ago to outlaw the practice, most associated gas is flared, causing local pollution and contributing to climate change.” The environmental devastation associated with the industry and the lack of distribution of oil wealth have been the source and/or key aggravating factors of numerous environmental movements and inter-ethnic conflicts in the region, including recent guerilla activity by the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND).

Oil revenue allocation has been the subject of much contention well before Nigeria gained its independence. Allocations have varied from as much as 50%, owing to the First Republic's high degree of regional autonomy, and as low as 10% during the military dictatorships. In practice, 85% of the oil wealth is retained by Nigerian elites who comprise 1% of the population..


When long-held concerns about loss of control of their homeland and their resources to the oil companies were voiced by the Ijaw people in the Kaiama Declaration in 1998, the Nigerian government sent troops to occupy the Bayelsa and Delta states. Soldiers opened fire with rifles, machine guns, and tear gas, killing at least three protesters and arresting twenty-five more.

Since then, local indigenous activity against commercial oil refineries and pipelines in the region have increased in frequency and militancy. Recently foreign employees of Shell, the primary corporation operating in the region, were taken hostage by outraged local people. Such activities have also resulted in greater governmental intervention in the area, and the mobilisation of the Nigerian army and State Security Service into the region, resulting in violence and human rights abuses.

In April, 2006, a bomb exploded near an oil refinery in the Niger Delta region, a warning against Chinese expansion in the region. MEND stated: “We wish to warn the Chinese government and its oil companies to steer well clear of the Niger Delta. The Chinese government by investing in stolen crude places its citizens in our line of fire.”


In September 2008, MEND released a statement proclaiming that their militants had launched an "oil war" throughout the Niger Delta against both, pipelines and oil production facilities, and the Nigerian soldiers that protect them. Both MEND and the Nigerian Government claim to have inflicted heavy casualties on one another.

from Wiki - Do you have a background in oil, Gwilym?

Poet in Residence said...

I guess my background in oil is in the 1,000's of level teaspoons of cod-liver oil I swallowed when I was a kid. I can still smell the fishy.

Billy C said...

A very pragmatic appraisal of affairs, George. I wouldn't have anything to add to it.

Oil. This always comes up. Legitimately I think. But then I look around me and see how completely dependent on it we are and how we would have to lose 90% of the population and go back to pre-industrial revolution times to live without it. How could we not scrap for every last barrel of the damned stuff? Legitimately I think.

George S said...

...the 1,000's of level teaspoons of cod-liver oil I swallowed when I was a kid...

A true man of my generation. You are clearly a survivor, Gwilym.

Poet in Residence said...

We are the cod-liver oil survivors!

Unlike Chilcot, I remember when the flannel* was a square of cloth used for cleaning the hands and face.

*from the Welsh gwlanen.

Pleanty of snow in Budapest in the last couple of days, I've heard.

Have a good Sunday.


Adrian said...

Very interesting post, George, particularly in relation to the role of the UN. I felt at the time that the wider Labour party, and others, were hiding behind the somewhat spurious logic of another UN resolution. Hardly anyone said "no war, whatever", yet as you point out the agreeing of a further UN resolution was geopolitical. Hanging behind a legitimacy agreed by Russia, France and China seems little different than hanging behind one determined by America. That said, I never quite understood why "we" (the UK) were going to war, and that still remains problematic. I'm convinced America was going to war, whatever, and therefore we had a choice to condemn; to support (as we did); or to have a more nuanced position based on our domestic opposition to the war. The latter was clearly an option, yet the long term damage to our relationship with America is something the politicians had to judge. Blair's unpopularity seems particularly strange as well, since, like Bush, he was re-elected following the war. It was only after this re-election, it seems to me, that the anger of the Stop the War movement, found a focus against our war leaders. Yet it is domestic and party issues (as well as the particular political systems of the US and UK) which led to a leadership change, not the war. (After all, the rest of the political classes mostly signed up to it.) This last week has brought back discussions and arguments I had at friends' kitchen tables. We won't, one hopes, get quite so fooled again - yet I wonder, since Iran is currently being marinaded in preparation for a possible later barbecue.