South African Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu made waves by refusing to attend the recent Discovery Invest Leadership Summit in Johannesburg because of the presence of former British prime minister Tony Blair. His reasoning? Blair is a war criminal because of his support for and participation in the 2003 George W. Bush invasion and occupation of Iraq. Tutu is tired of African leaders being dragged off to special courts or the International Criminal Court for trial on charges of having committed crimes against humanity, while white European leaders get a pass.
Tutu is right that there should be accountability for illegal wars, because otherwise they legitimize aggression. The architects of the Iraq War in the United States are now glomming onto Mitt Romney in hopes of maneuvering themselves into a position to get up a war on Iran. That they got away scott free with their earlier atrocities has only whetted their appetites.
The leadership conference did go on, and Blair addressed it, defending himself on the Iraq War, saying that even if there had not been weapons of mass destruction, Saddam Hussein had been a brutal dictator who killed thousands and used poison gas against his own people, and now he is gone; what, he asked, is wrong with that result? Blair’s self-defense, despite the accuracy of his charges against Saddam Hussein, is ethically and legally weak, since it takes the form of an “the ends justify the means” argument. Ironically, al-Qaeda, Blair’s arch-enemy, argues the same way in justification of its killing. One of the ugliest points Blair made in self-defense was that Iraq’s gross domestic product is now three times what it was in the late Saddam period. But Blair and the US and other UNSC members had engineered an economic blockade of Iraq that threw its economy down into fourth-world levels, so it had been Blair who set the low baseline that he said his invasion and occupation improved on! All that happened was that the invaders lifted their sanctions! Blair was paid thousands of dollars to attend the conference; if Tutu had gone, he would have spoken gratis.
Blair’s attorney general, Lord Peter Goldsmith, reasoned that an attack on Iraq in the absence of an explicit UN Security Council resolution allowing it was very possibly illegal in international law, and might expose British cabinet members to prosecution in European courts. He admitted of a grey area, because of the first UNSC resolution demanding Iraq reveal its WMD. Blair unethically connived at keeping his cabinet members in the dark about Goldsmith’s reservations, according to Alastair Campbell. That is, Tutu is right that Blair had legal advice that what he was about to do was very likely illegal, and he did it anyway.
But Tutu seems to have been especially angered by Blair’s 2010 admission that he would have invaded Iraq even if he had known that it possessed no chemical, biological or nuclear weapons. Many observers took this admission as a sign that Blair actually did know that the WMD case had been weak, and that he was advocating might makes right, opening him to charges of war crimes.
British law professor Philippe Sands points out that if you look at the International Criminal Court’s web site’s listing of defendants, they are largely African. We are confronting a world, he says, reminiscent of nineteenth-century French novelist Honoré de Balzac’s observation that laws are “spider webs through which the big flies pass and the little ones get caught.” He argues that international law will only really advance when the playing field is leveled.
Tutu’s observations are very much of a piece with Sands’s. He argues that Blair went to war against Iraq on fabricated false pretenses, since there were no Iraqi “weapons of mass destruction,” and he implies that Blair knew this to be the case before the war was actually launched. He tells the story of how he called then US National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice in early March, 2003, urging that United Nations inspectors be allowed to do their job before hostilities were initiated. Bush, Blair and the UN had demanded that the weapons inspectors be sent back in under Hans Blix. They were admitted, in February. The CIA gave them a list of 600 suspected weapons sites. They got through 100 by early March and had found nothing. Zero, zilch, nada. It was clear that if they were allowed to complete the list of 600, the casus belli or cause for war trumpeted by Bush and Blair would evaporate.
Tutu says that in response to his request that the weapons inspectors be given a chance, ” Ms Rice demurred, saying there was too much risk and the president would not postpone any longer.” Bush pulled the inspectors out and went to war.
There was, of course, no risk at all from ramshackle, beaten-down Iraq. The risk was that Bush’s shaky coalition of the willing to commit war crimes might falter or fall apart if he didn’t immediately launch a Blitzkrieg.
Tutu’s charge is that the Iraq War was a crime against humanity because it was a “fabricated” war, with no legitimate or moral casus belli, which resulted in massive deaths of Iraqis, their displacement in the millions, and continued instability in Iraq and in the region. Tutu even lays the blame for the current instability in Syria at Blair’s doorstep.
Tutu is careful to quote only the most conservative estimates of Iraqi deaths deriving from the Anglo-American war and occupation, saying 110,000 died. It likely was a much larger number, several hundred thousand. Since about 3 times the number of people are typically severely wounded as killed in such conflicts, some 300,000 to a million Iraqis likely lost limbs or suffered long term cognitive and other damage. A lot of the killed were men, forcing their widows and orphans into penury, and even sometimes sex work. Although Blair in his defense cited the Iraqis who died under Saddam, likely the US and Britain were responsible for similar numbers of Iraqi deaths.
Tutu is arguing from the black South African experience. South Africa suffered British conquest and colonialism, and then white Apartheid under the racist National Party (mainly an Afrikaaner institution, but more British whites passively supported it than would later admit to having done so).
Tutu, unlike a lot of South African intellectuals to whom I have spoken or whom I have read, is not a believer in absolute state sovereignty. He does believe that there are regimes so awful that they cry out for United Nations intervention, and he once said he would support a UN intervention against the dictatorship of Robert Mugabe in neighboring Zimbabwe.
I presume that part of Tutu’s charge against Blair is that he did not secure a UN Security Council resolution for war against Iraq, in the absence of which going to war is illegal in the post WW II international legal framework. If so, Tutu would have done us a favor by saying so. (This lack of a legal framework for war was one of the reasons I opposed the invasion of Iraq.)
I have long advocated that the criminal actions of Bush, of his vice president Richard Bruce Cheney, and of other high officials, be investigated. Bill Clinton was impeached for a fib about fellatio, but taking the US into an illegal war was treated with impunity.
The only thing I’d differ with in Archbishop Tutu’s argument against Blair is that probably the instability in Syria is not very related to the Iraq War. People in Syria were tired of Baath dictatorship and Bashar al-Assad pushed them into armed struggle. Most of those fighting al-Assad were opposed to the Anglo-American invasion and occupation of Iraq.