Saddam’s end, part 2: the weasel comments

Comments on the hanging of Saddam Hussein from around the world, especially from the principal invaders and occupiers of Iraq, have set new records in queasy weasel-wordism.  The test to be applied is how far each pronouncement avoids comment on the one main substantial issue (A:  Was the hanging itself a valid act of justice, leaving aside the view one takes of capital punishment generally, but taking into account the circumstances of the trial, the moral legitimacy of those responsible for the death sentence and its execution, and the likely political effects of the hanging?), instead taking refuge behind a comment on a far less important and less controversial issue (B:  Were the circumstances of the hanging appropriate, including the dreadful slowness of the proceedings, the exchanges of abuse between the hangmen and the prisoner right up to the moment of the latter's death, and the decision to perform the hanging at the beginning of a major Islamic sacred festival?).  Some comments even sheltered behind the aspect which barely raises an issue at all (C: Should one or more of those present at the hanging have filmed it on mobile telephones and revealed the truth about it by putting the film on the Web?).

The British Foreign Secretary, Mrs Margaret Beckett, seemed initially to be tackling Issue A, the only difficult one, but then to be perversely offering the answer Yes:

"I welcome the fact that Saddam Hussein has been tried by an Iraqi court for at least some of the appalling crimes he committed against the Iraqi people. He has now been held to account.
"The British government does not support the use of the death penalty, in Iraq or anywhere else. We advocate an end to the death penalty worldwide, regardless of the individual or the crime.   
"We have made our position very clear to the Iraqi authorities, but we respect their decision as that of a sovereign nation."   (BBC News, 30 Dec 2006; my emphasis)

Calling the hanging of a man "holding him to account" surely deserves its shoddy place in the annals of euphemism. But having later seen and heard the less bold (and certainly less perverse) comments of other dignitaries, including those by several of her ministerial colleagues, her department, the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, belatedly homed in on the obvious doddle — Issue C — but then proceeded to get even that one wrong, condemning those responsible for letting the world know the full horror of what actually happened, with the implication that it would all have been all right if only we hadn't known about it:

The Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett, who was criticised by some MPs for not initially condemning the manner of the execution [! — BLB], has also hardened her line. 'The Iraq government are looking into it, but we agree with John Prescott that the use of video images [of Saddam] was unacceptable,' said a senior Foreign Office source.  (The Observer, 7 Jan 07, my emphasis)

However, Gordon Brown, prime minister-in-waiting, and shrewder than the hapless Mrs Beckett or her senior Foreign Office source, cannily — good word for a Scot, especially this Scot — carved out a distinctive position for himself, establishing a perceptible distance between himself and his colleagues, by making an unexceptionable comment on Issue B (no, the manner of the killing was not appropriate, as everyone without exception has been forced to agree) while also clearly implying the bolder and more honourable verdict on Issue A:  no, the hanging was not an act of justice and its political effects will be disastrous:

[Gordon] Brown said: 'Now that we know the full picture of what happened we can sum this up as a deplorable set of events.  It has done nothing to lessen tensions between the Shia and Sunni communities.  Even those people, unlike me, who are in favour of capital punishment found this completely unacceptable.'  He hoped lessons would be learnt 'as we learn other lessons about Iraq.' (The Observer, 7 Jan 07)

(Don't you love that parting shot about learning the 'other lessons about Iraq'?) 

The Iraqi government has understandably insisted that the answer to A is 'Yes' and admitted that the answer to B must be 'No', while also answering 'No' to C — and arresting the witnesses suspected of filming the event, not the executioners who converted it into a ghoulish circus. 

Those who have chosen the easy way out by condemning only the manner in which the execution was carried out might usefully be challenged to describe what would have satisfied them as an acceptable 'manner' of killing this man, after a farcical show trial, at least in part at the behest of his country's illegal invaders:  reverent silence on the part of the hangmen, a blubbering Saddam, and no cameras, presumably. 

Those who filmed the proceedings and then made the record public for all the world to see should surely be given medals, not punished.  And a specially uncomfortable place should be reserved in purgatory for those political leaders who have shirked the only defensible answer to A:  No, this was not a valid act of justice, on at least ten cogent grounds, none of them dependent on a general objection to capital punishment:  for those ten grounds, please see my previous Ephems entry on this subject, 'Saddam's end: yes, it was an atrocity' (and don't miss the sometimes steamy comments on it).  Any bets on whether Tony Blair's eventual comments, promised within the next few days, will face up to Issue A and give it an honest answer?  I fear that the odds against are long.

By their comments ye shall know them.


5 Responses

  1. John Miles says:

    I agree with more or less everything you have to say, but Gordon Brown's whiter-than-white, unexceptionable remarks leave me feeling the least bit cynical.

    We should never forget that this man is just an ambitious politician, and that he was a senior member of a cabinet which decided to support the Blair-Bush invasion.

    I doubt if they'd have found the money to pay for it all if it without his enthusiastic co-operation.

    Brian writes:  Some scepticism is of course necessary and justified, I agree.  But there's nothing wrong with being "an ambitious politician":  if Brown were not ambitious, we would probably be saddled with Blair for the foreseeable future.  In his Andrew Marr interview on Sunday (from which Gordon Brown's comments on the Saddam hanging were taken) he explicitly accepted his share of the responsibility for the government's policies and actions over Iraq, while at the same time signalling pretty clearly that if he were to become prime minister the lessons of those actions and policies would be learned and there would be a new approach.  That seems to me fair enough, given that of course he has to (and does) take his share of the blame for the criminal blunders that have been made.  Should he have resigned over Iraq in 2003?  Of course: so should every other Cabinet minister, junior minister, parliamentary private secretary and Whip.  But Brown didn't, and we can only hope now that a Brown administration really would change the courses set by Blair.  His comments on the hanging also need to be seen in the context of his Marr interview as a whole, of which Jackie Ashley (the exceptionally well connected Guardian columnist) provided an unusually interesting and important analysis on 8 January.

  2. Gabriel says:

    [Comment deleted.  Ephems welcomes reasoned discussion of issues, including disagreement reasonably and civilly expressed, but is under no obligation to provide a forum for personal abuse or repeated failure to observe minimal standards of ordinary courtesy.  There are plenty of other blogs for that kind of stuff.]

  3. Phil says:

    Blair's silence – and the smugness of his silence – is profoundly disappointing; it disappointed me, and I've never regarded him very highly. The only consolation is that this reaction seems to be widely felt; I think it's doing Blair a lot of damage, particularly given the contrast with Brown. Even ITN, which isn't the most critical news organisation these days, ran a quick feature contrasting Blair's eagerness to comment on events in Coronation Street with his self-satisfied refusal to be pressed on all those other things.

    I thought Brown's allusion to those who believe in the death penalty – which he doesn't – was interesting. I wondered if that was aimed at Blair (has he ever voted against the death penalty?). In any case, saying that even supporters of the death penalty should find the execution deplorable was tactically very neat (as well as being a true statement).

    Brian comments:  For once I don't share the general indignation over Blair's silence on this (until earlier this afternoon).  There have been comments on the hanging by the deputy prime minister,  the foreign and commonwealth secretary, the chancellor of the exchequer and (I think) a couple of other ministers:  does every minister, including the prime minister, need to comment on every world event, even after the government's position has been made very clear?  Even when the British government has no direct responsibility for the event in question? I don't see it.  Anyway, Blair's comments today added almost nothing to what had already been said by the Downing Street spokesman; like everyone else except Gordon Brown he sheltered behind criticism of the manner of the 'execution', although Blair went half a step further by appearing to half-condone the fact of the hanging by stressing the awfulness of Saddam's crimes — as if those who regard the trial and hanging as a travesty of justice had forgotten Saddam's gruesome record of torture and mass murder, or as if denunciation of the hanging logically entailed excusing the crimes.  Such is the intellectual standard of our ministers, Brown excepted.  In my view Blair would have done better to preserve his silence and ignore the clamour for his comments.  I suppose his pride wouldn't let him do that after Gordon Brown had made some quite meaty comments on the matter.

    I don't recall seeing any evidence that Blair had ever voted in favour of capital punishment, although I don't recall any evidence that he has voted against it, either.  But of course there hasn't been a vote in the house of commons on capital punishment for several years, and in any case Blair rarely votes these days, or even attends, as attested by (e.g.),,-463,00.html.   

  4. John Miles says:

    There's nothing wrong with being "an ambitious politician"?

    You can't be serious! Aren't they mostly just hungry for the Great Corrupter? And, as some French statesman once asked, what's the pount of getting hold of power if you don't abuse it?

     If Brown were not ambitious, we would probably be saddled with Blair for the foreseeable future.

    A seductive defence, but I'm afraid I don't buy it.

    If we were all a bit leerier of ambitious politicians we wouldn't be saddled with Blair in the first place.

    Anyway, as you yourself make very plain, Brown's record on Iraq strongly suggests that his judgment is no sounder than Blair's.

    Brown's main selling point just now is that he isn't Blair – just as Blair was once not-Major, and Major not-Thatcher.

    My guess is that once Brown's future is behind him he'll be succeded by some equally obnoxious not-Brown.

    To return to "ambitious politicians", I can think of hardly any class of person which has caused its fellow men more grief.

    Can you?

    Brian replies: To answer your question with another, can you think of any group of people who have done more on balance over the centuries to improve standards of justice and prosperity in society than politicians?  If the answer to both questions is 'No', might that be because that's what politicians do, for better or worse.  In my experience of politicians of all parties (which goes back a good many years and is reasonably extensive), almost all of them have gone into politics with a genuine desire to improve other, ordinary people's lives:  they may be terribly misguided about the best way to accomplish this, but that's almost universally what they want to do.  And for 90 per cent of them, getting something useful done self-evidently means aspiring to eventual ministerial office.   That means they are ambitious — 'ambitious politicians'.  They lead, on the whole, pretty terrible lives, working absurd hours for extremely modest rewards — especially taking into account the job insecurity, terrible working conditions, demands made on them by their constituents and the Whips and the media, the stresses imposed on their families, the sheer difficulty of ever achieving anything concrete and the fantastically low esteem in which their occupation is widely held.  No wonder the calibre of so many of our politicians is so — well, mediocre.  But we can't do without them, and to denounce them for being ambitious seems to me to reflect a cynical dislike of politicians in general, not really a reasoned objection to the fact of their being ambitious.  Do you object equally strongly, or at all, to other groups of people being ambitious?  Businessmen?  Novelists?   Surgeons?  Cricketers, for goodness sake?  

    As for Gordon Brown:  on the contrary, his comments on the hanging of Saddam suggest to me that his judgment on Iraq appears to be 100 per cent sounder than Blair's, despite his having gone along with the catastrophic policies as a member of the Blair Cabinet.  But in having done so, he was in remarkably good company! 

  5. John Miles says:

    My answer to your question would have been something like "reasonably decent people from almost any walk of life you care to mention – including, of course, politicians."

    I’m sure your job-description is largely true, so far as it goes, but most people are even worse off than members of parliament.

    Yet they still manage to survive, many of them quite happily.

    I’ve not had much to do with novelists or businessmen, but I have come across my fair share of surgeons.

    They were really great people – dedicated to their work, and to the welfare of their patients.

    "Ambitious" is not a word it would ever have occurred to me to use about any of them.

    Or, come to that, about any of the professional cricketers I’ve had to do with, though they too were, in their humbler way, great people.

    As for Gordon Brown, I would have to think very long and hard before I gave my vote to anyone who supported the invasion.

    But let’s hope you’re right, and that his words really do speak louder than his actions