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Monday, June 08, 2015 

Iraq and othering.

In his otherwise fine tribute to Charles Kennedy (only Steve Bell's beautifully elegiac and moving watercolour was finer), Alastair Campbell couldn't help but get a dig in at those whom, when it comes to him and Our Tone, can't see beyond Iraq:
Charles knew that it was possible to disagree with people without constantly feeling the need to condemn them as lacking in integrity or values; though he was not averse to making a few cracks about historic events down the road in Glencoe.

And it's true, it's perfectly possible to disagree with someone's politics without disliking them as a person; there are plenty of marriages and partnerships that are testament to that.  Equally though, it's fair to say most of us are happiest and most comfortable among those who think the same way, or we at least believe do so.  Where the line becomes more blurred is when we get into the territory of othering; when we ascribe motives to our opponents that we might believe they have when they do not.  It's far more difficult to remain on friendly terms with someone who thinks the worst and isn't backward in coming forward with such accusations.  Both left and right do this, regardless of how the right often complains the left is more susceptible to othering; while not the best example, Lionel Shriver wrote in the Graun after the election that the reason there are "shy Tories" is because of how successful the left apparently is at portraying those on the centre-right as being heartless monsters.

You do though have to wonder if Campbell is yet again protesting too much.  Very few now will claim, can claim, that Blair's motives in going to war in Iraq were cynical.  He fervently believed, and indeed still does believe that getting rid of Saddam was the right thing to do.  The way the case for war was presented was cynical, no doubt about it, although this again is not to say that Blair did not truly believe that Iraq had a WMD programme, was in breach of UN resolutions and so war could be justified on those grounds.  How he came to believe that is again open to question, but that he genuinely believed it was the case is not in doubt.  Blair's crisis of confidence in mid-2004, when he came extremely close to resigning such was the pressure over the failure to find the missing WMD coupled with the death of Dr David Kelly is testament to that.

Belief is key to understanding Blair.  The former prime minister's every move is a mess of contradictions, just as his ideology, or rather lack of it always was: Blair believes, therefore he is.  He has no objection to supporting dictators or autocrats (and taking their money) every bit as oppressive as Saddam was, at least in his later years when under sanctions, so long as they are supportive of the West.  He is deeply opposed to Islamism, and would rather states like Egypt remain under the yoke of one man than become exceptionally messy democracies which elect the likes of the Muslim Brotherhood.  Yet he's never voiced any concerns about the AKP in Turkey, perhaps because, err, until the weekend it looked as though Erdogan was becoming the very kind of ruler he's fond of.  Blair isn't oblivious to his idiosyncrasies, or to just how much of a disaster his support for the Iraq war has been; he can and has seen it.  It just hasn't altered his belief that he was, is right regardless.

With Campbell there is no such belief.  You can't be an alcoholic, a depressive, as Campbell is, and believe so wholly in yourself, in everything you do, and project it so consistently.  Campbell famously said "we don't do God", whereas with Blair it's difficult to know which God he believes in the most, himself or Jehovah.  Unlike Blair, Campbell has also never given so much as the slightest inkling that he believed the war in Iraq was the right thing to do.  Where belief is key to understanding Blair, key to understanding Campbell is loyalty.  On the day Robert Maxwell fell off his boat, taking the Mirror pension fund with him, Campbell was the one punching Michael White for making a Cap'n Bob-bob-bob joke.  Likewise, Campbell was so loyal to Blair that he became a liability.  Who knows what the Chilcot inquiry will eventually conclude about dodgy dossiers and all the rest of it, but Campbell served his master regardless of whether he thought he was right or not.  Whether Campbell secretly advised Blair that the war thing was all a bit loopy-loo we don't know.  Perhaps he did.  Perhaps he didn't.  Regardless, he did what he was employed to.

The vast majority of us do the same, albeit usually on far less serious matters.  We might think our bosses are idiots, but it's rare we say that to their faces, at least if we want to remain employed.  We might advise them their strategy or way of thinking is wrong, but we carry on regardless if they disagree.  Neither Blair or Campbell could have foreseen what a disaster Iraq would turn out to be; they were certainly warned civil war was a possibility, as they were that it would foment terrorism and potentially bring it to these shores.  No one came close to predicting it would lead to the rise of a terrorist group that would look to usurp al-Qaida, that would straddle both Iraq and Syria and be so adept at propagandising that British schoolgirls would be attracted to its cause.  They could though have foreseen the instability that would erupt from the abandonment of any plan for the aftermath, that a country which had already been bombed by the US and the UK for 12 years prior to the invasion wouldn't with open arms welcome their liberators, that there is no telling what forces you will stir up by removing completely the existing governing structure and starting again, a pattern we've seen repeated in Libya.

When Jon Snow then says the Tariq Aziz he knew was a "nice guy", he's no doubt telling the truth.  Plenty of dictatorships have a softer face, that suggests reform could be possible, and like Aziz did, provide some representation for a minority group.  Aziz might not have been responsible principally for any of the oppression that either the Kurds or the Shia in Iraq suffered either; Jalal Talabani, the Kurdish Iraqi president, refused to sign the warrant for his execution.  As the obituaries have made clear however, he was involved in the decisions to go to war with Iran and then invade Kuwait.  He most certainly had blood on his hands.  So too, without question, does Tony Blair.  Does the fact Blair was elected whereas Aziz never was make a difference?  Do Aziz's initial politics, his support for Arab nationalism, help us understand how he came to be where he was and how he justified it to himself?  Does the fact he was the softer face of one of the most destructive dictatorships in the region in fact make him a worse person?

Just as it is possible to disagree with someone without questioning or condemning their integrity or values, it is possible to think worse of someone precisely because their integrity or values are or seem to be pure.  Blair continues to be a malign influence on the world stage because his black and white view of the world is so dangerous, because he has learned nothing from the war he still believes was the right thing to do.  Campbell is a fascinating figure and invites such hostility precisely because of his success and his contrasting ability to claim white is in fact black, so long as it's in the interests of who he's working for.  Worse, I might posit, are those commentators who take advantage of the slightest opportunity to push their lost cause, who in the face of all the evidence even now argue for more of the same.  Campbell, like Aziz, might be a nice guy when you get to know him, as Charles Kennedy, a more than decent judge of character felt.  The rest of us can only judge based on the face those like Campbell present to the world.

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