News: Tutu Wrong on Iraq

Added Sunday 2nd September 2012

Archbishop Desmond Tutu's latest comments on the Iraq war are a warning against unconditional assent to the sayings of the good and the wise, for Tutu is surely both of these; but in calling for Tony Blair and George Bush to be tried for war crimes as the result of the invasion of Iraq in 2003 takes him beyond his area of competence.

On the narrow front of the Iraq war itself, Tutu has three grounds for objection: first, he asserts, Blair and Bush lied about intelligence reports prior to the 2003 invasion but he is in no position to know any more than the rest of  us who have read the results of numerous, inconclusive public enquiries; and, anyway, having put a quarter of a million troops on his borders to force Saddam Hussein to accept the renewed attentions of Hans Blick I for one wouldn't have liked to be responsible for withdrawing them on the basis of Saddam's undertaking that he had nothing to hide. In a strange symmetry of outcome, Saddam was punished because nobody knew when he was lying and when he was telling the truth; and, conversely, the tangle that got us into the second invasion was the result of not completing the first in 1990.

Tutu's implicit second ground is that not even the United Nations can safely sanction a war because his third ground is that parties can be culpable for failing accurately to forecast consequences. Tutu, wrongly - but that's irrelevant here - asserts that part of Blair's 'crime' is not to have forecast the Iraq invasion's de-stabilisation of the Middle East. There's a much stronger case to be made that ever since the overthrow of the Shah of Iran in 1979 a regional war between Shias and Sunnis has been brewing up.

But Tutu's underlying errors are much more serious not only because they demonstrate fundamental logical flaws but also because they come from such an eminent person. Tutu has, at a stroke, shifted the whole debate about waging war from the just war theory, founded on the theology of Saint Thomas Aquinas, to an alternative theory that no war, not even one sanctioned by the Security Council, is justified because nobody can predict its outcome. At a stroke, then, Tutu has given a green light to any dictator, anywhere in the world, to do anything he likes because the international community is not only legally and morally powerless to act but, in acting, leaves itself open to retaliatory prosecution by those very dictators. A perfect example, if we need one, that ethics is a matter of the particular, not the abstract.