Abject failure means never having to say you're sorry

Why Bush and Blair can't admit their colossal mistake in Iraq.

By Jane Smiley
Published October 1, 2004 6:47PM (EDT)

A piece has been circulating around the Internet in the last few days by Wall Street Journal reporter Farnaz Fassihi that details what life is really like in Baghdad, and it is nothing like Bush and Blair ever wanted or imagined. Foreigners and Iraqis alike are in constant and accelerating danger as the Iraqis grow angrier and angrier at the mess that has been made of their country. The war is lost; the implication of the piece is that more aggressive attacks, such as those planned for after the November elections, will do nothing but further enrage the Iraqi population. Fassihi knows this. I know it. Everyone who has read her piece knows it, and judging by the e-mail chain, everyone by this time is just about everyone. And so, I have to conclude that Tony Blair and George W. Bush also know how bad things are in Iraq -- that their adventure, whatever its motives, has proved an ever-expanding disaster. Of course, to hear them "converse" about it, as Tony Blair did on Tuesday at the Labor Party Conference in Brighton, England, you would never know the truth. Blair did his usual lawyerly thing -- he spoke eloquently about his feelings without actually giving anyone in the opposition a hook. His warm tone implied regret, but the word "sorry" never appeared in his speech.

Why is this? Why do they keep at it, misrepresenting what is going on, though most adults know that acknowledging mistakes is the first step to solving a problem? Even when given repeated chances at the Thursday debate to admit his blunders in Iraq, the most Bush could say -- repeatedly -- was that it was "hard work." Obviously, Bush is in a tight election, and lying and cheating have worked fabulously for him before -- his morals are beneath contempt and also beneath analysis. The job of the average American at this point is just to try to avoid the guy. But what about Blair? His political support is seeping away and he is not allowed by his party to put Iraq behind him, even as he throws his left wing the anti-hunting bone, a patently obvious ploy to distract them from the real issue.

I am reminded of Big Tobacco. I am also reminded of Slobodan Milosevic, whose trial is a kind of play-within-a-play for what is going on in the Middle East.

Big Tobacco knew for years, from the evidence of their own researchers, that cigarettes were an addictive health hazard. Big Tobacco executives refused categorically to admit a truth that was plain as the nose on your face -- cigarettes cause cancer and other life-threatening illnesses and a cigarette-smoking population has astronomical health costs. Big Tobacco executives spent years lying to the courts until they were caught red-handed. Now Big Tobacco faces a potential punitive fine of hundreds of billions of dollars, a fine that could kill the industry, for doing exactly what Tony Blair and George Bush are doing.

George W. Bush certainly doesn't want to be tried as a war criminal -- he made that clear when he abandoned the World Court on the war crime issue (a decision he proudly flaunted onstage Thursday night). Pundits around the world disapproved for this abstract reason and that, but what seems clear now is that, since Bush already knew that he was going to invade Iraq, he wanted to cover his rear, and didn't fancy seeing himself hauled to The Hague like Slobodan Milosevic. But he and Karl Rove seem to have taken a leaf out of Milosevic's defense manual -- don't admit you did anything wrong (to do so would be sending "a mixed message"), blame your enemies, and be as aggressive as possible in claiming the moral high ground. In fact, at this point, some illusionary moral high ground is the only defense Bush and Blair have, as Blair showed when he delved into his "reasons" for invading Iraq on Tuesday. Bush, in the debate, sounded as if he's been warned by his lawyer that to acknowledge mistakes is to lay himself open to a product liability lawsuit.

It's no coincidence that Tony Blair is a lawyer and George W. Bush spent his "working" life as a corporate groupie. That's where they got the morals they display as world leaders. They have no intention of serving the public good. Blair is always excusing himself by means of technical, legalistic language; Bush has no idea at all of -- well, of anything. Both try to cover their moral vacuity with religious language that further relieves them of responsibility -- God is responsible. That these are our leaders is our fault -- we've let corporate culture and corporate ways of doing things take over the world. We have the leaders we deserve after our 60-year love affair with multinationals. Today the Iraqis are suffering, but soon enough it will be our turn.

Jane Smiley

Jane Smiley's new book, "Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel," will be out in mid-September.

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Iraq Middle East